Socotra – an island forgotten by men and blessed by gods

Dear Traveler,

When I was a teenager (back in the 70's), there were no computers and "smart" gadgets of any sort. Can you imagine! We were writing letters on a paper with a pen, posting them in post boxes. Our music was the hyper modern Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" or Bowie's "Space Oddity". And the literature of my youth was the science fiction. We grew up with the books of Arthur Clark, Isaac Asimov, Strugatsky brothers or Ray Bradbury. It is Bradbury's "Martian chronicles" that made me dream about traveling to different worlds and having the appetite to discover other cultures. There is a small island in the Gulf of Aden, which represents to me the image of Bradbury's Mars, when the first Earthlings arrive. Socotra is part of Yemen, so to get there you stop first at Sana'a, the capital of the country.

Sana'a

Sana'a

"Welcome to Yemen! Where are you from?" – these are the words you can hear from everyone in Sana'a. These are more or less all the English words they know, but they pronounce it so sincerely, that you start a nonsense conversation. Even at the passport control at the airport the officer said: "Ah, Denmark / Bulgaria / Germany! You are friends! Welcome!" They try in any possible way to disprove the information we have received about Yemen back home. The usual image we get is of a dangerous country, hostile to foreigners. For sure, there are regions, which are not safe and there are hostile persons or groups of people. But our journey went without any threat or sense of hostility.

Any foreigner needs to get a visa to enter Yemen. The only exception are the Saudis, but only when they arrive by plane. Our main goals were to see the capital and to visit Socotra. This is an attractive mix of incredible nature, people isolated from the rest of the world and the crowds of the capital, chewing "khat". They chew the leaves of this amphetamine-like drug-plant until their cheeks swell to the size of a round shot.

A 'busy' day on the streets of Sana'a
A 'busy' day on the streets of Sana'a

Every traveler should visit Socotra. But only the traveler, not the tourist! In the island's capital, Hadibu there are only few hotels of a category, similar to the European two-stars standard. The running water in general is cold and if you have a chance, the shower may work. In one room there is a mirror, a fridge in another. In a third one you may have a TV set, or a hanger. Yet rarely you can find these items all in one room.

Dragon blood trees
Dragon blood trees

The first and the last night we stay in a hotel, and the others – in tents on the magnificent beaches of Socotra. There most of the time you don't have running water, but we improvised. Yet the beautiful sites million times compensate all inconveniences. The views are out of this world, sometimes completely surreal. This is the home of more than 300 endemic plants and over 10 species of birds. If you ever heard of Socotra, the thing you eventually remember is the famous Dragon blood tree. The incense tree (Yemen is the main world producer of myrrh) and the Egyptian vulture are the other landmarks.

Boswellia socotrana
Boswellia socotrana
Cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos)
Cucumber tree (Dendrosicyos)
Dragon blood tree - the symbol of Socotra
Dragon blood tree - the symbol of Socotra

And goats, lots of goats! They are everywhere - climbing on the rocks or next to the beaches. They are in the restaurants trying to eat the empty cardboards, or served in our plates being the main dish on the island.

The white sand coast of Socotra
The white sand coast of Socotra

No fruits or vegetables grow in Socotra, but our guide explains something else. He assured us that they are growing huge tomatoes, as big as melons, but we were not in the right season. If only we could come back in few months… That is why we brought with us few boxes with provisions on our flight from Yemen. Socotra gave us in return great fish – yellow tuna or kingfish, just grilled on a pan.

Fisherman in Socotra
Fisherman in Socotra

Here the sun rises around 5 a.m. and sets down just before 5 p.m. so you have to adjust your habits. During the day you walk around the rocky plateaus and the caves, or the natural hot water pools.

The white beaches of Socotra
The white beaches of Socotra

Early in the afternoon you reach a beach and set your tents. In the morning curious goats or vultures peek into your tent while you wake up. Trekking around the island is really amazing.

Trekking in Socotra
Trekking in Socotra

Socotra has long sandy beaches, and most importantly they are completely deserted. There are no tourists and you feel like on a different planet. The most impressive places are the Qalansia lagoon and the Shuab bay. In general Arabian Sea on the north shores offered us fantastic beaches with fine white sand and incredibly pure emerald water. Surprisingly, the Indian Ocean on the south side was quite stormy and water looked brownish because sand was whirled by the waves.

Qalansia lagoon
Qalansia lagoon

Every year around 2,500 tourists visit Socotra. In good seasons the number goes up to 4,000. According to the official information the population is a bit over 40,000. Our guide rounded them easily to 90,000. He was a charming character. Never refused to give us an answer to any question. But usually his information was dubious, if not a complete lie.

Socotra goatherd
Socotra goatherd

The Socotra inhabitants don't consider themselves Yemenis. They claim being completely different. Women wear black burqa. It is out of town that you rarely may see a woman wearing colorful dress. But again they are completely covered. Kids are cute as everywhere around the world. Little rascals play with you, sing and pose for pictures. In general we haven't seen many people working. Apart from the guides, drivers, boatmen, fishermen, and restaurant or shop owners you rarely see anyone working.

The view changed completely when we returned to Sana'a. People as well seem quite different. They are more open. Especially the children – laughing, jumping around and shouting: "Shura! Shura!" We understood that the word mean "picture".

Girls in Sana'a.
Girls in Sana'a

Everyone wants to get photographed and enjoy seeing his or her face on the screen. Sometimes the head of a family asks us to take a picture of his kids lined proudly in front of the camera. They completely ignore who will be seeing the pictures back home. Even ladies in their burqa don't mind being photographed, unlike those in Socotra. And if you look carefully, you will notice under the burqa a dress or shirt elegantly combined with a bag.

Sana'a's Old Town is a beautiful vision. The houses are built with sun-dried bricks. They look like Christmas gingerbread cookies with sugar glaze. It's like a fairy tale town.

The gingerbread town
The gingerbread town

Locals explained that a traditional house has 5 floors. The ground floor is for the animals. The second is for the kids – to protect them from falling from the higher floors. The third and the forth are for the rest of the family. And the upper floor is for guests and mainly for khat chewing. We saw vast fields with this "herbal culture". The usage as well is massive – 80% of the Yemeni chew khat every day, including women (even though we haven't seen any). But every man you meet on the street has a cheek swollen at a different stage, depending on how soon in the day he started. Khat is the main trade on the markets. It's like, if you don't chew khat, that affects terribly the communication.

Cleaning the street is not the first concern of locals. It is not even a second or third one. You have flying plastic bags and garbage all around, but nobody seems to be bothered by this.

Almost all dates and sultana resin, fruits and vegetables, as well as other goods are imported from all around the world – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, India, China and USA. I even found a chocolate bar from Bulgaria.

Boy in Sana'a
Boy in Sana'a

I got invited to a local wedding. It happened to be something like a bachelor party on the night before the wedding. Under something like our balloon tents for tennis courts, the male friends and relatives were gathered. About 200 men were chewing khat. Pity we couldn't see the bride.

There are few nice little towns worth visiting in the area of 50 kilometers around Sana'a. Built on top of a rock pinnacle at the famous Wadi Dhahr Valley is the Imam's Rock Palace. It is an iconic Yemenis symbol you can find on postcards and magazines or bills and water bottles.

The Imam's Rock Palace
The Imam's Rock Palace

The ancient towns of Thula and Qauqaban or Shibam with its tower houses are so picturesque. People stop and start a conversation with the excuse of practicing their English. But the real motive is to sell you souvenirs.

A donkey on a street of Shibam
A donkey on a street of Shibam

The charm of Yemen and Socotra is in their intact nature and unspoiled by tourist industry people. It is a place blessed by gods and luckily, forgotten by men. As one of "The Martian Chronicles" main characters, Jeff Spender says: "We'll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves...We, Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things". So, hurry up until this hidden paradise is not damaged by "modernity".

The Penguin

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