Dragons Blood Tree – only on Socotra Island.....I had hoped to provide my own pic, but was not to be (photo taken from the internet)
The past has me in its clutches.I was done with the Middle East, especially after trying to get back into the US from the Netherlands last summer and getting hassled because of all the Arabic stamps on my passport.There is so much of the world to experience and I had been checking out ‘volunteer vacation’ opportunities, right up to the moment when a buddy e-mailed some pictures of Socotra.
Socotra is the largest “Arabic” Island, though it actually lies closer to Africa.Several million years ago this chunk broke free from the Horn of Africa and floated off into never-never land.Socotra’s isolation spawned the evolution of unique and truly astonishing flora --- a third of the plant species on Socotra cannot be found elsewhere and it is hailed as the ‘Galapagos of the Middle East’.The ultimate eye-catcher is the Dragon’s Blood Tree, which looks like it sprang from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.
Totally seduced by this alien landscape, I spent several months learning about Socotra, lining up a guide to lead us hiking and camping, and deciphering how to actually get to this remote island.Encouraging others to sign on for the expedition proved ugly, because Socotra earns its “Arabic” designation by lying under Yemen nationality (despite sitting 250 miles south of Yemen, Socotra is only 120 miles east of Somalia).
Yemen is on the “No Travel” list maintained by the US State Department, and there is no denying terrorist activity here.The bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 was a horrible incident, and the US embassy in Sana’a was assaulted in 2008.Terrorism is not limited to the US and frequent kidnappings are among hostilities which appear to be embedded in Yemen.Confronted by this sober history, I researched the US State Department’s web site and came away with a belief that terrorism here was mostly targeted against national symbols of the US, rather than hapless individuals mucking about.
Prior experience in the Middle East and reading “Motoring with Mohammed”, a fairly recent tale of an American’s escapades in Yemen, insulated me from stark paranoia.I remained reassured by the remoteness and difficulty to access Socotra, but phoned the State Department to get the latest.There was a competent person on the other end, but his specific knowledge or Yemen was zilch.He had no idea where Socotra was and mainly read verbatim from their web site as I followed along on my PC screen.
After this I called the Yemeni Embassy in the US.The guy I talked to here was much less formal, regaled me about the beauty of Socotra and dismissed any concerns.He shared his belief that Socotra is too remote for there to be any terrorist activity and reinforced the terrorist plague in Yemen occurred in the north and east of the mainland.More than anything else, I was unburdened when he exclaimed “Socotra is a great place to chill”.
Further strengthening this belief was the consistent positive responses I received from inquiries to other TravBuddies, selling me on the notion that the desire to reach Socotra was not a death wish.Convincing my family and friends was another matter, but eventually I gained clearance and even recruited my buddy John to join me.Christmas Day I bought a round trip flight to Dubai, where we would hook up with Mark (though he hadn’t yet been convinced to join us for the Yemeni leg) and then follow a crazy flight arrangement (through Doha, Sana’a and Mukalla) to get there.
The same day I e-mailed Nagib, our guide on Socotra, with dates to set the plan in motion.I must have a spot of good karma though, because Nagib replied that he was escorting a group on a six-day outing and would work with me upon his return.I had been pestering Nagib for roughly two months without making a commitment, so I figured fair was fair and decided to repay his patience.Naturally it was the same time that I was punching in my credit card for the Dubai air fare that a would-be terrorist attempted to ignite his underwear, and over the next days tension between the US and Yemen simmered while I awaited Nagib’s return.When the US announced it was closing the embassy in Sana’a, the venture was scuttled, fortunately before I made any further commitments.
Since both John and I had tickets to Dubai, the plan switched to a few days in Dubai (John has never been to the Middle East before) with Mark, who will then be our guide for a road trip through Oman.Despite the enormous regrets I held over being so close to a dream and despite the need to scramble to put together an itinerary (I know very little about Oman and we depart in six weeks!), it only took a few links from Mark on Omani opportunities to rekindle the fascination to explore. Oh, man -----> bring on Oman!
Didn't get to Yemen, but in Oman you do not need to cover your hair (unless entering a mosque, for example). Omani woman will have their hair covered, but it is perfectly acceptable to let your hair free.