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Story Publication logo April 24, 2010

Surreal Beauty on Yemen's Remote Socotra Island


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After the attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 in December, Yemen again became the focus of US...

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So there I was, lying on my back in a bikini on a deserted white-sand beach in Yemen, squinting into the shimmering turquoise sea to the west, wondering if I could make out Somalia from here.

I couldn't. Propped on my sandy elbows, all I could see were my own toes, a tract of impossibly fine white sand, and miles and miles of the Arabian Sea, which faded ever so slowly through a spectrum of teals before settling into a deep sapphire blue before, I couldn't help thinking, bumping up against Somalia, 160 miles away.

The whole situation was a little surreal. Given my geographic location — Socotra, a sparsely populated Yemeni island in the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden, a boat ride away from one of the bloodiest failed states on Earth in one direction, and a war-torn, impoverished one in the other — I knew I had no business being in a flowery green bikini. But somehow at the time it all made sense.

Perhaps that's because Socotra — the largest island in an eponymous, four-island archipelago off the southeast tip of Yemen — doesn't feel like either Yemen or Somalia. It doesn't really feel like anywhere on Earth.

The whole place has an eerily beautiful, otherworldly feel, beginning with its pocked and looming limestone cliffs, which drop into five-story-tall, white sand dunes, bisected at their bases by veins of grass tracing freshwater springs. Even the otherwise arid mountainsides and red sandstone plateaus look as if they were dreamed up by Dr. Seuss, thanks to the umbrella-shaped Dragon's Blood trees — so-named because of their red, medicinal sap — that grow nowhere else in the world. My favorite is the Socotran desert rose, a beige rutabaga-shaped tree.

The Socotra archipelago broke off from mainland Africa 250 million years ago, and the island is now home to 700 endemic plant and animal species, according to a United Nations survey, earning it the nickname "Galapagos of the East." The birds alone — masked boobies, warblers and cormorants — are worth the trip.

It's no wonder then that Socotra has become a new destination for adventure travelers. In the past 10 years, Yemen's tourism ministry, in partnership with dozens of international development organizations, has been working to replace the image of Yemen as an Islamic gangsters' paradise with images of Yemen's ancient and astonishing UNESCO Heritage Sites — of which Socotra is one — in order to lure much needed economic stimulus to this impoverished nation.

But that's no small trick. Yemen's once-vibrant tourism industry took a nosedive in 2000 when al-Qaida terrorists bombed the American destroyer USS Cole in a Yemeni harbor. Tourism continued to plummet after a local al-Qaida affiliate began targeting foreigners at tourist sites in Yemen's eastern desert in 2007. The U.S. State Department's travel warning about Yemen reads like something out of a Brian DePalma film: murder, violence, more murder.

The Yemeni tourism industry's public-relations nightmare reached a crescendo recently, after a Yemeni-trained Nigerian student tried to bomb a plane flying into Detroit on Christmas Day, catapulting Yemen into the international limelight and renewing worries of the growth of al-Qaida and imminent war in Yemen and Somalia. Tourism in mainland Yemen, not surprisingly, is now basically nonexistent.

Casablanca charm

Remarkably, though, tourism to Socotra — which is roughly 250 miles away from Yemen's mainland, and is considered safe by most experts — has weathered the bad press. Official estimates put the number of tourists to Socotra somewhere around 3,000 people a year — a dramatic increase since 1999 when a small airport, its hand-painted signs and walking tarmac all Casablanca charm, was erected.

Most visitors to Socotra are European and fall into the category of "ecotourists" — folks who are willing to forego flush toilets and electricity in exchange for some untrammeled nature. That's partly by design. A decade ago, both the Yemeni and local governments signed on to a United Nations development plan that eschews building beachfront resorts in favor of small, family-owned campsites.

The result is that any visit to Socotra is rustic. There are no ATMs or Internet cafes on the island; even finding a power outlet can be tricky. The largest city on the island, Socotra's capital, Hadibo, features tumbledown stone buildings and fences made of discarded bumpers, sticks and strips of tarp. "Downtown" Hadibo is a dirt road where goats outnumber the locals sitting on blankets hawking fruit. But in place of Wi-Fi and a morning latte, visitors are rewarded with silence, empty beaches and friendly children whose knowledge of English usually begins and ends with the phrase "I love you!" At night, the stars are so bright, you can see them through your eyelids.

Undersea show

On our first day on the island, my boyfriend, Paul, and I snorkeled at the coral reefs at Dihamri Marine Protected Area with tens of thousands of fish, whose iridescent yellow, hot pink, orange and turquoise skins put even the most flamboyant 1980s-era ski suit to shame. Just when we were returning to shore, we spotted a loggerhead sea turtle, the size of a throw pillow, gliding beneath us, seemingly unperturbed by the strange, masked fish following him from above. The next day, we hiked through a surreal, Dali-esque sort of wilderness, and into the Hoq Caves, which feature caverns the size of football fields and wind over a mile into the earth.

On the last day, we asked a local fisherman to take us off Socotra's westernmost point, where fabled schools of dolphins are said to frolic. We waited for a while, watching the black cormorants nest in the cliffs, watching stingrays slip ghostlike below, and then the dolphins showed up. Dozens and dozens of them, leaping from the turquoise water, catapulting themselves into corkscrews, flopping onto their sides, and then throwing grinning glances in our direction, as if to be sure we were watching. And then, as quickly as they'd arrived, the dolphins began to swim away, careening and leaping into the sapphire sea, perhaps, I thought, on their way to Somalia.






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