Banned from Yemen

November 2013: For some strange reason I didn’t go to Socotra Island the first time I went to Yemen in 2007. Maybe at the time it didn’t appeal to me as much then but about 3 years later in 2010 it appeared on my radar, and I became obsessed with it. The island paradise in the Indian ocean closer to Somalia but still part of Yemen with unique trees, plants and animals and few residents seemed to beckon me and I became obsessed with it. But it seemed the universe was opposed to my return. Or at least the government of Yemen was opposed to it.  Since my previous trip to Yemen, a new requirement was in place making it mandatory to obtain a via on arrival authorization letter via a host in Yemen. I purchased my airfare and started organizing the trip with a local Socotra tourist operator. All seemed to be going as planned. Weeks passed and still no update. I reached out to the Yemen operator and was told, “everything will be fine Inshallah! Soon I was departing to Oman and still no tourist authorization letter. It seemed there was some kind of problem, and my Yemen operator was going to travel to Saana to unravel the issue. One of my friends was already in Socotra waiting for me. I flew to Oman and even tried to visit the Yemen Embassy there but to no avail. Then I received a message from the Yemen operator and from my friend in Socotra. My friend warned me to not come to Yemen. There was something wrong with my name and I was flagged by the Yemen government as some kind of persona nongrata. Then my Yemen contact reached out to me demanding to know who I was and asking why I lied to them. It seems they were detained in Saana and interrogated because of me and now they were under the impression that I was some kind of a spy or terrorist. So, for the time being I was banned by Yemen. How or why, I will never know. I didn’t do anything illegal during my first visit and even if I did Yemen just doesn’t have a tracking mechanism to record such things anyways.

Later in 2013, Yemen was experiencing lawlessness and instability. The revolutions of the Arab Spring were shaking the country and Yemen was descending into civil war. Most of the mainland and the capitol, Saana were no longer safe to visit. El Qaida in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken over the western half of the country and Socotra because it was an isolated island far from the mainland was the only bastion of peace left in Yemen. I decided to roll the dice and try and visit Socotra again. This time I found a different operator in Socotra and started the visa authorization process and I waited to obtain permission before purchasing airfare. Weirdly enough I received it no problem. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned that I would have complications once in Yemen.

Getting to Socotra

Location of Socotra Island

I traveled to Socotra with my friends Dan and Tim via Felix Air, in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. The flight was infrequent, and we stayed in Socotra for 4 days. Felix Air was the only safe flight to Socotra for foreigners. There was one other flight from Saana, but it wasn’t reliable, and foreigners weren’t allowed into Saana because of the war. Our flight wasn’t direct, however and we did have one stop on the Yemen mainland in Al Mukalla. The problem with Al Mukalla is that it had only recently been recaptured from AQAP and now it is the only city in the region that wasn’t under AQAP control and AQAP was constantly threatening to retake it.  Our stop-over was 3 hours, hopefully the Yemen military could hold off AQAP that long.

It was apparent right away when we were boarding our flight in Sharjah at 6am that this was not an ordinary tourist destination. We were the only foreigners on board and everyone else was either in abaya, or a thawb. Our flight mde it to Al Mukalla as expected but what I didn’t expect was for our plane to leave us there and fly to Saana to pick up more passengers before returning to Al Mukalla afterwards for the onward journey to Socotra. In the back of my mind I thought we would be sitting ducks in the airport in the event of an all out AQAP rain on the airport or what if the plane had a mechanical issue leaving us stranded? But in the end when traveling to Yemen, these are the risks you have to take.

 

Arrival to Socotra 

Much to our relief, the Felix Airplane did return to Al Mukalla to pick us up and take us to Socotra’s capitol in Hadibu. My next concern would be when entering immigration. Would my previous visa difficulties flag me for deportation or worse imprisonment? Immigration turned out to be a breeze. it was so disorderly that I managed to walk past the immigration check in the chaos and exit the airport, before I realized what happened. So, I returned to get an entrance stamp to make sure I didn’t have any issues when exiting the country. There was no issue but then again it didn’t appear as if any databases were checked. We finally arrived in Socotra. Our driver and guide were waiting for us at the airport in their jeep and we were off to explore the island.

We would camp our first night in Arher on the Northeast of the island near a coastal mountain range lined with huge 100-foot-tall white sand dunes. On the way to Arher we would stop and see the sights such as the largest town in Socotra Hadibu of 60,000 people.  We visited the fishing market, and the goat slaughter market in hadibou.

Fishing market

People in Socotra are friendly but shy when it comes to photography, and you need to be very careful when taking photos to make sure people are ok with it. 

Outdoor goat slaughterhouse

The goat slaughter market was a savage scene of gore as goats were lined up to a chopping block and one after another beheaded leaving a puddle of blood congealing beneath the chopping block. One man asked me for a photo of him holding the goat’s head. I took it but the man next to him was averse to any photography. I was fine with that, but the man’s friend grabbed my camera from my neck strap and started to point it at his friend to tease him. The aggravated man started to push my camera away violently. This was not a situation i expected and I didnt want it to spiral out of control and we immediately exited the market. 

No matter what the adults thought of being photographed, the kids were always happy to oblige. 

Socotra Kids

Socotra Kids

Village Soccer match

As we drove across the island we passed humble stone villages without electricity, goats, and mosques where the lives of villagers have mostly remained unchanged over the decades. 

Socotra Man

Socotra Village

Socotra Island

The scenery along the sea cliffs, rising 1000 feet along the northeast coast was mind blowing. 

Driving Around Socotra’s Sea Cliffs

As we traveled further north, pristine forests of endemic vegetation and unique trees started to become common, and we were constantly exiting the car to photograph the trees. 

Incredible trees and vegetation of Socotra

The most common wild animal we saw in Socotra besides the gecko was the Egyptian vulture which was as plentifull as a sea gull and always nearby scavenging for scraps. 

Egyptian Vultures

Driving to our campsite

Me photographing the scenery

Drive to Arher Dunes listening to local music being played on the car stereo. 

Camping Near the Arher Dunes

We camped near the huge coastal dunes lining the sea cliffs and as soon as our tents were up, we were off climbing the dunes and scaling cliffs looking for caves. I found a few caves that went back into the mountain quite aways too. The campsite was incredible, and we had a bonfire at night and cooked some Yemeni meals under the stars.

Camping near Arher Dunes

Camping near Arher Dunes

One of the Caves I found near Arher Dunes

Sunrise near Arher Dunes

Hoq Cave

The next morning, we hiked up to Hoq Cave, which is a very large cave that meanders into the mountain a few miles. One interesting aspect of the cave is the ancient graffiti in its interior of seafarers that have visited the island over the last few thousand years from Romans, Greeks, Aramaic and Palmyra. 

Entering Hoq cave

Stalagmite Inside Hoq Cave

Natural Pool, Hoq Cave

Dan and Tim Exploring Hoq Cave

Hoq Cave

Wadi Dirhut Natural Pool Hike

My favorite hike was to the Wadi Girhut natural pool from the beach up the sheer sea cliffs and through the unique vegetation to a stunning fresh emerald pool overlooking the ocean. Swimming in this pool was one of those rare moments of pure bliss in life when nothing else matters other than the sheer joy of the moment. Then endless groves of majestic Dragon Blood trees, which are only found on Socotra and some likely 1000 years old, appeared along the top of the mountain. The sap from the trees is red giving the trees their name. Ever since biblical times, the sap has been used for medicinal purposes and also for ornamental henna designs for women. We camped on the top of the mountain in Homil, a place surrounded by Dragon Blood trees.

Our guide resting on the hike

Endemic Trees Along the Hike

Endemic Trees Along the Hike

Wadi Girhut Natural Pool

Wadi Girhut Natural Pool

Wadi Girhut Natural Pool

Dragon Blood Trees

Dan and Tim Hiking in the Dragon Blood Trees

Me Looking Out Over the Ridge

Dragon Blood Trees

Endemic Gecko

Dragon Blood Trees

Dragon Blood Trees

Sunset over Dragon Blood Trees

It was Thanksgiving an American holiday celebrated with a huge feast. We mentioned this to our guide, and he said no problem left and came back an hour later with a small live lamb. We put the lamb down and it ran over to us bleating. We took turns holding the sacred little lamb and we knew that this was what the guide meant by finding a solution to our Thanksgiving feast problem. The guide and another Yemeni man took the lamb and an hour later returned with the lamb now skinned and boiled and presented it to us with some rice as our Thanksgiving feast.

Thanksgiving Dinner of Lamb

The next morning, we walked over to where our driver was waiting for us with our vehicle. The goal for the day was to drive across the interior of the island for a few hours to the Diksam Plataeu to see a canyon and more Dragon Blood Trees. Along the road, our driver stopped to buy a lamb that a man was selling on the side of the road. According to him the lambs are cheaper and better tasting in this part of the island. Dan held the lamb in the backseat for the remainder of the day until the driver passed his village where he dropped off the lamb with his wife.

Traveling with our drivers live dinner

Waterfall off the side of the road

Diksam Plateu

We lazed around under the Dragon Blood trees overlooking a vast canyon and the mountains of central Socotra. The Diksam Plateau and Dragon Blood trees of Firmhin Forest was beautiful despite the aggressive Egyptian vultures which happily removed any unguarded food from our possession.

Diksam Plateau 

Diksam Plateau 

Diksam Plateau 

Lunch at the Diksam Plateau 

Dan napping under a Dragon Blood Tree

We stopped to visit our guides forbidden lover. Our guide was in love with a girl that he had only seen a few times through the window of her house while she was fully veiled. It is a Yemeni Islamic custom for the parents to choose the wife for a husband and for them to not meet prior to the wedding except for one time under the father’s supervision through the window of a house and with a woman’s veil on. Our guide was distressed because the girl, he claimed was his girlfriend, could not take his hand in marriage because her father did not approve of his dark skin since he had some African blood. It was a little strange stopping to say hi to his girlfriend via her window. We couldn’t see her since her window was completely covered but we did hear her greet us.

Socotra Village

Socotra Village

On the way to Detwah lagoon, a white sand beach where we would camp on our last night in Socotra, we stopped to visit abandoned Soviet tanks left along the coastline facing the mainland. When Yemen was split into two, the south was alligned with the Soviets and the north aligned with the west. The Soviets provided weaponry including tanks to the south to defend it against a possible invasion from the West. Now the tanks site rusting and abandoned remnants of a long gone past. 

Me in a Soviet Tank

On the drive Tim spotted a man on a motorbike and asked our guide if he could ride on the motor bike for a few miles with them man. Our guide laughed at this request and said sure why not. The flagged the man on the motorbike down and presented our request and he smiled and nodded let’s go and for the next few miles we drove alongside the man driving his motorbike with Tim on the back.

Village man giving Tim a Ride on his bike

Detwah Lagoon

Detwah lagoon is a nice sandy beach with village kids playing soccer. It had nice scenery, but the ocean water wasn’t ideal for swimming, and I probably would have picked another location if I had a chance to choose again.

Detwah lagoon

Being escorted by village kids holding our hands to our campsite

Campsite

Leaving Yemen

I was still worried upon leaving Yemen that somehow my name would be flagged, and I would be detained because of the so-called red listing that was brought to my attention when Iwas denied entry into Yemen a few years prior to this visit. At the Socotra airport, I was stamped out of Yemen with no issues, so it seemed all was in the clear. I sat in the waiting area of the airport, when two immigration officials approached me and asked me to see my passport and asked me if my name was Matthew. I was instantly hit with a gut sinking feeling that this was when I would be detained. The officials asked me to follow them into a room where they sat me down and reviewed my passport and asked me a few questions about my visit. After about 10 minutes and some debating between the officials in Arabic, I was released back into the boarding area. I was relieved. But shortly after that the men returned and looked at my passport one last time, only to return it to me again. I have no idea what the issue was, but I suspect it was related to my previous issues, but they decided that there must have been an error and they just didn’t want to deal with having an American tourist on their hands in the middle of a civil war, so they let me go and soon afterwards our Felix our flight returned to Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

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