The island and its habitants

The intercontinental stratospheric wind blow from Africa towards the Himalayas, bringing wet season and monsoon to India. Along the way, it passes over Socotra and the high mountains of Haghier. This wind would blow down through the northern coast non-stop for roughly 3 months in a year, picking up gusts as strong as 180kph in the area of Hadibo (their only main town). Sea travel is very difficult. Though belong to Yemen, the island is over 250km off the coast of the mainland. It is much closer to Somalia but there are no real way to get to it from that side by boat that I am aware of. Locals have confirmed this as well. Because of this, the island and its habitants have been by and large land-locked. Only until 1999 that they finally built a landing strip for military planes. By 2005 Yemeni airline began operating weekly flights. Felix air added another weekly flight around 2007. So began the tourism industry.

Much of the island's unique and rather picturesque landscape comes from the windstorm and the isolation. For example, this sand dune is created when the wind sweeps upward from the mountain and swirl into the ocean for three or so months, collecting and piling sand to form giant dunes. The dune would shift to another location seasonally depending on wind direction.

 

Socotra is one of the most-isolated landforms on Earth of continental origin (i.e. not of volcanic origin). The archipelago was once part of the supercontinent of Gondwana and detached during the Miocene, in the same set of rifting events that opened the Gulf of Aden to its northwest.

The archipelago consists of the main island of Socotra (3,665 km2 (1,415 sq mi)), the three smaller islands of Abd al Kuri, Samhah and Darsa and small rock outcrops like Ka'l Fir'awn and Sābūnīyah that are uninhabitable by humans but important for seabirds.

The main island has three geographical terrains: the narrow coastal plains, a limestone plateaupermeated with karstic caves, and the Haghier Mountains. The mountains rise to 1,503 metres (4,931 ft). The island is about 125 kilometres (78 mi) long and 45 kilometres (28 mi) north to south.

Source: Wikipedia.

There are about roughly 800 or so plant species on this island. 308 of them endemic. The dragon blood tree cannot be found anywhere else on earth. Now, because of excessive goat roaming (yes), baby dragon blood trees are nowhere to be seen anymore. The goats eat them apparently. Only at the top of Scand -- the highest mountain peak of the island -- can you find naturally grown baby trees. Other interesting plant species include the bottle tree, the cucumber tree, 8 different types of frankincense trees, loads of wild aloe, crotons, and a few gnarly prickly shit i don't recall the names of. 

Strangely enough, there are not a lot of wild animals on this island. All goats and cows roaming around belong to people. There are tons of them everywhere you go. Most of the back mountain trekking paths we used are goat herding paths that connect small villages together. Every now and then you'll come across sivet cats. The rest are amazing birds, including boobies, a quite cute owl, and a very special endemic socotra cormorant. Fish is another story tho. You'll see dolphin surfing waves everyday all over the island. There definitely are loads and loads of fish.

It is hard to gauge how many tourists have landed on the island. I want to believe that if the NYTimes covered it in 2007, it is probably a well traveled path. Strangely enough when I began researching how to get there no outfitters in America showed up. Only UK and Italian expeditions appeared -- and only if you search from google.co.uk domain. Philip, our trip lead, mentioned that there used to be a lot more tourism on the island back when the political situation in Yemen was more stable. In 2008 or 2009, the island would see north of 5000 tourists coming through per year (Yemenis and foreigners alike). Now because of the instability in the mainland the island's tourism has died down tremendously. We probably came across maybe 50 tourists max.

The island's main capital -- Hadibo -- is not much more than a cluster of rock houses on top of a giant pile of plastic garbage next to the ocean. Most building structures on this island are incomplete. Remnants of foreign aids -- everyone from the French to Czech to Japan -- can be seen scattered here and there. Some helped create honey production industry on the island. Some funded reforestation efforts of endemic plants. Others supported build outs of campsites for tourism. Electricity runs for about 12 hours overnight in the main capital, and only a few hours for one or two other little towns. Because of this there are no ice-cream on the island whatsoever. (!! oh my god) There are only 4 hotels on the island. Hotel is probably not an accurate word to describe it, but comparative to other structures around, I suppose it will do.

Settlements outside of the main towns are called villages. Some have generators. Most do not. Almost all of the buildings are made of rock piles. Some fancier ones have concrete grout and cinderblock corners. Most have bright neon orange tarp, held together with rocks, as roof. Almost all do not have windows -- even the ones in the capital. There are holes (for windows) but no actual window structure. Basic sanitation system is installed in Hadibo and Qalansiyah but nowhere else. Garbage -- the island's most systemic problem in my opinion -- is collected at some interval and dumped into a giant hole someone dug somewhere on the island (tho honestly most were just scattered about in villages and towns). This is the first time I am seeing first hand the real damage of plastic to the fragile environment we have. Water is abundant on the island. There is a complex system of pipes and tubes that connect all towns and villages to nearby wadis (fresh water sources). 

It is said that there is around 25000 people living on Socotra. Although if you ask the Yemeni government, they would say the number is much closer to 50000. The discrepancy, some speculated, has to do with certain government entity benefiting from funding related privilege by claiming more people exist. Socotris' heritage is more closely aligned with African-Somalian than traditional Arabs tho these days it seems much have been blended together. Some people have really dark skin, but would possess blue eyes or bright strawberry red or blonde hair. Our guide said that it could possibly be because of a mixture of very early day settlement of the Portuguese many hundred years back.

Socotris are very warm and open. Their sense of personal space is very different from that of westerners (as in none). Men and women hold hands regularly with those of the same gender (but never opposite gender). People greet each other with a unique nose-touching move and a hand shake. Never use your left hand to shake (it's rude). People aren't shy with tourists. They will come up to you and get right in your personal space and stare you down. Sometimes in large groups. To the point of where you might feel really uncomfortable. When I first arrived I was apprehensive about the clash between religious Muslim's expectation with attires and the western norm. People here are much more relaxed about it if you look like a tourist. Wear something that covers your shoulders and knees. Always have a scarf to cover your head. You'll be set.

Most people on the island make a living through livestock, date farming, fishing, tourism, and merchant trades. 

Traditionally, the island had its own language, national outfit, and isn't very religious. Only in the last 70 years when the Islamic brotherhood came over when things changed. Women started wearing all black, men started the religious rituals, and Arabic took over in schools as the official language. That said, you still see in everyone you come across that women wear a lot more bright and beautiful colors than mainland Yemen, and Socotri - the mother tongue - is alive and well even when there's no written version of it anywhere. Today Islam is the primary driving force of the island's culture. People pray 5 times a day (with friday being mosque day), are honest and loyal, and i truly find everyone i came across proactively helpful and really warm. That said, the gap between a man and a woman's expectation in society is quite large here. Much larger than either of the Arab nations I've visited (Qatar and UAE). Here, women do not go mosques. They pray at home. Women do not share living quarters with men. They apparently share the sleeping part, but not the living part. Women are not to come out to greet guests and visitors (unless the guests are also women). Women go on little holidays together without men (but with children). Women do go to school (pictured here). From what I gather the schools are mixed gender. During the evening you almost never see a woman wandering around. Men gather around tea houses to relax after a long day of work. Women I believe do the same but in closed quarters of their homes. Socotri household is not nucleus. Everyone in the same family live in the same house. A woman is expected to move in to her husband's home at the time of marriage. There is quite a bit of expectation for women to marry and bear lots of children at a very young age. Those who do not marry are frowned upon. Unsure if this is more of an exception or if it is a norm but it also seems to be ok to marry your own relative.

 

In truth, the clearly separated role of gender in this society made me quite uncomfortable. I'm no feminist. By most western standard I might even be one of the most open-minded and accepting of this culture that I know. Being exposed to this protocol and seeing that it actually is quite normal for these women to live with really made me question what my foundation for discomfort is. Am I looking from the outside in wanting these women to be liberated (aka come over to my side of the cultural norm)? Or am I looking from the outside in with much more prejudice than I should be (and that their cultural norm -- albeit very different from mine -- is totally fine)? Who am I to say that my values -- my cultural norm that is so liberating -- is ... better? It's a hard struggle to dwell on. 

They say that because of its distance from the mainland, Socotra is a bit like a tiny nation on its own. To some extent I can see that. However, you definitely see the strong allegiance of its people to the Southern Yemen group in the revolution that's happening right now. The claim is that the South has about 4 million people but control 80% of the country's wealth and natural resources. The north (Sa'naa ++) has about 20 million people and no resources. The distribution of wealth through Yemen, according to the Socotri and most of the southern people, feels quite unfair. They prefer to separate the nation and form their own country. This message is written on a lot of walls in Hadibo and echoed throughout the trip from almost everyone you come across.

My 10-day trek began in Hadibo, then meandered through the Haghier mountain range overland with camels for 4 days. The mountain trek ended on the last day with a rigorous climb up Scand (Haghier's highest peak). We then switched over to SUVs for 4 days of beach camping in various parts of the island. We ended the trip back in Hadibo for a home cooked meal with our guide's family, then parted way back to UAE.

 

Here's a daily recount for those interested. Posts will be up gradually, of course.

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 - 9