“Yemen? You? Are you sure?”
The Cairo airport man was sure I had made some perfectly understandable blunder and had mistaken Yemen for Topeka, Kansas.
“You?” he clarified, gesturing at my whiteness.
“OK,” he frowned at life’s strangeness. “Wait over here. The police will come for you.”
I sat on a little bench with a disheveled Yemeni family and looked at my phone. Oh, it’s 9am back in the US, I have to call in to a meeting.
“Sean, this has got to be your sketchiest trip yet,” my manager opined. “Is this safe at all?”
“Well, they are having a civil war, but I’m not planning on getting involved in that. Wait, shit, the police are here, gotta go-” I hung up.
The airport police were there to escort me and the huddled Yemeni masses to the other Cairo airport. I didn’t know there was another Cairo airport but I was about to leave the world of the familiar. I dialed back into my work meeting as I climbed into the van.
“Hi, yeah, if I’m breaking up it’s because we’re driving across a runway. This is fun-”
The police dropped us off at a small terminal that is used for all the destinations that white people don’t ever fly to. I was, understandably, the only such white person in the entire building.
I walked into the building and through the metal detector. Another airport guy gestured for my boarding pass.
Yemenia Airlines doesn’t give out boarding passes to just anybody just because you’re flying on one of their flights. So all I had was a letter, literally a paper letter, saying thanks for doing us a solid and buying a ticket with Yemenia. I had this letter because you can't buy tickets for Yemenia Airlines online, I'd had to arrange for someone to walk into the airport office in Cairo and buy the ticket for me. The Cairo airport dude looked at the letter.
He then took my passport and wouldn’t give it back.
Uhm, I think I’m going to need that to get on the plane? Can I-
“Five minutes!” he said, annoyed.
I wandered over and sat in a holding pen full of families from places The Consolidated Federation of White People have never heard of. Eight minutes later, I approached the airport guy again.
“FIVE MINUTES!” he waved me away, even more annoyed.
Twenty minutes later I came back.
“FIVE! MINUTES!” he exclaimed, flabbergasted by my stupidity.
OK clearly either Egypt is running on sundial time or “five minutes” is the only English phrase this guy knows. I went back and sat down.
I’ve never had this happen in an airport before. It wasn’t like I was at the gate, this was just the front door. I booted up my laptop and watched the screen light up with work things people absolutely positively needed from me before I went off the grid and into the Yemeni wilderness in… *looks at watch* ninety minutes. Oh, and the tech team forgot to install the VPN that would allow me to connect to anything at all. Sweet.
I looked up at the front door guy busily doing nothing. Hmm. I don’t want to miss my flight, maybe I should-
Suddenly a huge argument erupted between the five minutes guy and several other airport employees. I couldn’t understand any of it as it was an argument entirely in Arabic, but it was very dramatic and nearly came to blows. A new pecking order had clearly just been established.
Hmm. Cairo is kinda stressful. My mind drifted back to the Egypt Air flight from Greece to Cairo, and the absurdly upbeat muzak that had been playing on the plane. Hmm hmm hmm hmm, feeling groo-vy. “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” bounced along over the tinny speakers as we landed, and I hummed this to myself as the airport guys bumped chests and loudly got in each other’s faces.
I got up and took a stroll around the terminal, feeling very out of place. Yep, nothing I can eat here. I found a quiet abandoned corner to plug in my laptop and munched on Greek treats from my bag.
When I returned to the holding pen, not much had changed. But now it was getting very close to my flight time. Suddenly a different airport guy stormed over and glared at me, and then at my passport in his hand.
“Yemen?” he said. “Really?”
“Where you come from?” he asked.
“And before that?”
“Tel Aviv-” ohhhhhhhh shit. Yemen, like many Arab countries, bars entry to anyone who has been to Israel. Not just people from Israel, mind you, anyone who has been to Israel. Ever. It used to be that you had to sweet-talk Israeli immigration officers into not stamping your passport so you wouldn’t be barred from entry into the entirety of the rest of the Middle East. But now Israel doesn’t even stamp your passport, for this very reason. So you just have to not fuck up and volunteer information about your recent visit to Israel at the first possible opportunity, like I had just done.
I’ve been trying to get into Yemen for four years, somehow had found a tiny window of time when the country’s level of tragic dysfunction had ebbed just enough to allow my entry, and now I had just fucked it all up right out of the gate. The whole airport situation was so weird and I had just hopscotched from Israel to Greece to Egypt on no sleep, and I... I just forgot I was supposed to lie.
The airport guy looked at me incredulously.
Shit. What sounds like “Tel Aviv”? Smell a sleeve… hella Steve… televis-
Thanks a lot, brain. Slow clap.
He looked panicked for a second and I could tell he was doing complex calculations in his head about what he was supposed to do in this situation versus his intense desire to not have to deal with me for a single second longer.
“BAAAAH!” he harrumphed and stuffed my boarding pass into my passport and shoved it at me. “Go!”
Whew! I scrambled into the line for the baggage scanner in front of my gate.
“Seiyun!” the gate agent called out, announcing the boarding for our flight. He checked that everything was in order with the gathering crowd as they stuffed their everything to the scanner. Then he spotted me.
“Seiyun?” he asked, frowning.
He walked up closer to make sure I had heard him right.
He gave a “what the fuck” shrug and gestured for me to get on the damn plane.
My understanding is that Yemenia owns three planes. I think I flew on all three of them on this trip, and I think the first one was the most fucked up. It was easily the most fucked-up plane I’ve been on outside of North Korea. The arm rests between the seats had duct tape holding them together and everything smelled like the inside of a pawn shop.
One of the most striking things you notice about Yemen is that it is possibly the least progressive place in the entire world. This becomes apparent before you even arrive, when you realize that not only are all the women on the plane covered from head to toe, but virtually all of them are sitting in the back of the plane, as if they were African-Americans on a bus in the 1950s. I’m still baffled trying to figure out how this is even arranged, since it’s not like you just sit wherever the hell you want on an airplane. Do all Yemeni people just know that guys should buy seats in the front of the plane and women in the back and they all just book them this way, naturally?
Maybe it’s not that complicated, as I got the general impression that none of these people had ever flown before. So maybe they did just sit wherever the hell they wanted.
We landed in Seiyun and were first told we were to hang out on the plane until it took off again for our final destination, Socotra Island. Huh, funny, I haven't done that on a plane since I was a kid. Then about five minutes later the pilot changed his mind and told everybody to get the fuck off his plane. We shambled blurry-eyed down the steps in the early morning light and onto the tarmac. Holy shit. We’re in Yemen.
We spilled out across the runway and gawked at the drab expanse all around the squat little airport. Some random pieces of military equipment loafed around and a single lonely plane from Felix Airways cowered at the far end of the runway. Felix is Latin for “Happy,” a reference to Yemen’s previous identity as Felix Arabia. “Happy” Arabia? That’s pretty darkly funny given Yemen’s actual history. It also both sounds like a Middle Eastern golfer and makes me want to start calling countries by men’s names as a regular habit. “I understand that you live in the United Kingdom, but I prefer to refer to it as ‘Dave’.”
After we got our fill of tarmac gawking, we lined up in front of the airport, where doctors pointed pistol-like laser thermometers point blank at our foreheads to make sure we didn’t have the coronavirus. This was novel both because it seemed a lot like what the first-person experience of being executed would be like, and also because this was back in February before coronavirus was really a thing outside of China. As far as we knew at the time, anyway. It’s less of a crazy funny “Only in Yemen!” story for me to tell now that they’re going to start doing this next week before they let you into Whole Foods.
I looked up. Oh hey! It’s my friend Chris from our trip to the ‘stans back in 2018! We hadn’t planned to take this Yemen trip together on purpose, but this is just how things work out when you travel to weird places that nobody goes to. You run into the same six people who also thought this sounded like a good idea.
Here in Seiyun, smack dab in the center of Yemen, we were less than 30 minutes from Yemen’s most famous historical sites in Shibam. Shibam is an ancient walled city of mud skyscrapers that has earned it the nickname “The Manhattan of the Desert,” and is also one of those places that makes you wish your town was named something awesome like Shi-BAM! As we waited endlessly in the dull little box of an airport for our onward flight, it was a bit torturous knowing something so cool was so close, and yet so far away. Shibam was held at arm’s length by the fact that outside of our little airport bubble, mainland Yemen is pretty damn dangerous.
On our way back from Socotra we spent the better part of a day in this same airport again, impatiently awaiting our onward flight back to Cairo. Emboldened by just having survived eight days in MF Yemen, we were curious to see if we could make this Shibam thing happen now. One of the members of our group repeatedly attempted to bribe an airport official into letting us sneak out of the airport (which we most definitely did not have the right visas for) so we could hire a driver to take us to Shibam for a few hours. I strategically stood close enough that I would be included in this adventure if the conspiracy got off the ground, but not so close that I could be accused of being part of the bribery process if the shit went sideways.
“Are you offering me a bribe?”
“No, no, no. Bribes are bad things. This is something good.”
“Look, you know the name of this area? You know what it translates to in English? The place you go to die. You would not survive this.“
You really need to work on your tourism slogans, Yemen.
Socotra Island is an ecological wonderland of unique species that exist nowhere else on planet Earth. Cast adrift between Yemen and Somalia in the Arabian Sea, it's also a bitch and a half to get to. As soon as I found out about the place and saw the otherworldly photos of the Dragon's Blood trees that only exist on this island, I immediately wanted to go. But my discovery unfortunately coincided with a window of several years when nobody was able to get to Socotra.
And I don't mean your grandma, I mean nobody.
After the Houthis overthrew Yemen's central government in 2014, that was basically the end of people being able to go to Yemen and Socotra. There weren't any flights to the island, and because of the civil war, you couldn't cross the mainland to take a boat from the Yemeni coastline. In 2017, one of the adventure travel companies I work with announced that they'd found a convoluted route to Socotra, and took bookings that involved chartering a boat for the long trip from Salalah in Oman. This was to be no small adventure due to the Somali pirates who patrol these waters, but we were reassured about the security detail we'd have with us to counter this threat. This sounded pretty amazing but I had a conflict on the dates, which hardly mattered since this beautiful dream never came to pass anyway. The governor of Socotra, who was guaranteeing the group's safety while on the island, died in a car crash that many believe was orchestrated by the government of the UAE, who were fighting for control of Socotra. Welcome to the clusterfuck of all things Yemen.
During this same period of time a well-known travel blogger spent three years and over $10,000 on six different attempts to get to Socotra himself, as Yemen was his second-to-last country to visit in the entire world. Driving himself in from the border of Oman? Turned away by Yemeni border guards. Charter flight straight to Socotra from Oman? Cancelled. Kenyan propeller plane? Turned around in mid-air by Saudi coalition planes before they could land. Somalian fishing boat? Turned away at the port. Private charter on a Yemeni airline? Airport attacked.
He did finally get there on the sixth attempt, stowing away for four days on a cement boat from Salalah. This is a boat that transports cement to Socotra, not a boat made of cement. Though I have to admit that every time I imagine this story I still picture the boat being made entirely of cement.
Instead, it was made of cockroaches. And the toilet was basically a little metal seat where you hung your ass out over the ocean. So basically it was only a small step up from a Carnival cruise.
This guy is literally the only person I've heard of who made it to Socotra during those years.
In 2019, Yemenia started operating flights from Cairo to Socotra via Seiyun, and a trip was looking possible again without having to involve cement roaches. Then in October a militia backed by the UAE executed a seige on the governor of Socotra's house, and all foreigners were turned away from flights to the island. Then after that there was some kerfuffle when a tourist ended up on the island without the appropriate visas and access was cut off for everybody in response.
In-between all of this, one group did make it to Socotra in late 2019, so I had reasonably measured hopes that my February 2020 trip would go through. And now, here we were, circling the island in our pawn-shop-fresh plane, as the pilot tried to remember where the airport was. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton singing "Islands in the Stream" looped back and forth with Weezer's "Island in the Sun" over my headphones, because I hadn't thought to load any other island-appropriate songs on my phone.
Inside the little airport, we signed papers promising that we didn't have the coronavirus, scout's honor (seriously, how was Yemen so much more on top of this back in February than the US or Europe?) while we crowded in shoulder to shoulder with everyone from the plane. Apparently a fist fight broke out in the crowd, but I must have been in the can because I missed this entirely. I did see a little kid walk through the metal detector with a massive plastic AK-47, which made me laugh.
Leaving the airport, the first thing you notice about Socotra Island is that this wondrous, unique landscape is completely covered in multi-colored plastic bags. These are apparently the bags that Qat comes in. Qat is the leaves of an Arabian shrub that people in Yemen and the horn of Africa chew for the sensation of euphoria it causes, euphoria so intense it apparently inspires you to just leave your trash wherever.
Gradually over the course of the trip I realized how many of the guys were chewing Qat, their cheeks bulging out while they labored over not fixing a motorcycle or just sitting on the stoop and keeping an eye on the clouds. It's generally not considered a very dangerous drug, though it can cause psychological dependence and Yemen seems to be in a hurry to become the first country to have its domestic food production completely collapse because it's diverting all of its limited water to grow more Qat.
Once you got through the capital city of Hadibo, the continual carpet of Qat trash thinned out, allowing you to enjoy the island's many beautiful vistas. Dramatic, craggy peaks rising in the distance made me wish I was here on a mountaineering trip.
On our first morning on the island I went with our British guide Oli to exchange cash for some Yemeni Rial, since my dream of there being ATMs in Yemen turned out to be a complete fantasy. Local cash in hand, I was finally able to remedy the fact that I was already somehow running out of soap, thanks to some mishaps involved in learning to wash my own clothes on the go while I was in Israel. The dirt street was lined with... shops? Let's just say open garages with stuff in them you could buy for money. I walked up to the first one that wasn't selling motorcycle gears or pants.
My eyes scanned the wall of products in little containers. All of the writing was in Arabic. Also I have no way to ask how much anything is. This may be more difficult than I had expected. The "shopkeeper" waited expectantly as I desperately looked for anything that might be soap. My eyes stopped on the only thing that looked remotely close, a little orange bottle.
Hmmm. The product is called "Plant." Is that soap? It says "Honey" on it. Honey-scented soap? The only other English on the front of the bottle was the fine print that said "Nature Fresh" and then the enigmatic slogan "Wipe off scurf." Yeah, this is probably soap. I kept handing the shopkeeper Rial bills until he started to hand them back. Okay. I think I just bought this probable soap.
As I was walking away up the chaotic street, I glanced down and noticed that the picture on the bottle was of honey being spread onto toast. Oh shit. Did I just buy a bottle of honey?
But why would you use honey to wipe off scurf? And what the fuck is scurf? Is wiping it off even good? Maybe I need my scurf! I don't know, I never had that conversation with my parents growing up.
When I got back to my room at the "hotel" I was able to inspect the bottle more closely, squinting at the fine print on the back.
Ingredients: Water... yadda yadda yadda... MELON CHILDREN GLUE? What the f- My mind reeled as I tried to figure out if you can make glue from children or if this was a remedy for children who were constantly losing their melons.
Oh good, there are some instructions in English: "Note: if it gets, flush with fresh water." If it gets what?? Goddamned honey bottle cliffhangers.
Oh wait, there are further instructions. Not about what it gets, unfortunately, but there's a mention of the hair. Oh. I think I just bought shampoo. It doesn't say shampoo anywhere on the bottle, but it mentions wet hair so it's either shampoo or Nair.
Well, I think you can wash your hands with shampoo if you're in a pinch. Or in Yemen.
My eyes ran over the rest of the ingredients. Alkyl copolymer. That's... I think that's plastic. Okay. Urea... yep, that's from pee. This shampoo is fantastic.
Our hotel was, as they say on Tripadvisor, real shitty. Which was pretty much to be expected, since if somebody tells you "I just stayed in a really nice hotel in Yemen!" they're almost certainly bullshitting you about one half of that equation or the other. But at least it was a break from the Qat trash outside. My roommate Chris (not my other friend Chris, who was down the hall) was an absurdly well-traveled older gentleman from the UK, and now with Yemen underfoot only Afghanistan stood in the way of him having been to every goddamned place there ever was. He traveled with a mosquito net, which I think means you've been to Africa. I wondered how long it would be before I owned a mosquito net. This was in no way a wasted purchase on his part because the air in our screenless-windowed Hadibo hotel room was at least 67% mosquitoes.
The bathroom was one big shower, which I've grown used to by now as a travel nerd, but it also only had ice-cold water, which takes a little getting used to. However, all of this was secondary to the thrill of the toilet seat, which was cracked in half so that if you weren't extremely careful you'd end up with a very sensitive part of your private area skin pinched between two razor-sharp shards of plastic.
Also our room was right next to the gasoline generator that would roar to life to loudly power the hotel every time the island's power grid went out, which was approximately every seven minutes. Our room was also on the front of the hotel, so you were never far from the sound of everyone on Socotra riding a motorcycle right by your window all night long.
I would have thought all of this made our room one of the bad ones, but after five minutes of talking to everyone else I realized we got lucky with one of the good rooms. Some of the other rooms didn't even have a toilet seat at all, grabby or not. We spent roughly half of the trip camping and the other half sleeping back at this same hotel, alternating every other night. Each time we returned to the hotel it was a free-for-all in terms of which room key you grabbed off the front counter. I always made sure to get our same room because it had a toilet seat and, well, the devil you know and all that.
At night we were free to wander around Hadibo, which was a bizarre kind of place to wander. The dirt streets were paved in a continual blanket of thousands of mashed plastic bottles, making for a bizarre kind of Sprite-colored tarmac. Goats were just plain everywhere, picking amongst the abundant trash to find the tastiest plastic bags to eat. We were a definite curiosity to the locals and goats alike, neither of which seemed to have seen many tourists in a long while. Any time anyone in our group wanted to buy a keffiyeh, the head scarfs you see people wearing all around the Middle East, I would always accompany them to the shop. Not because I wanted a head scarf, but because you never knew what you were going to see in the streets of Hadibo.
At one point, Raoul from Brazil and I ducked into a barber shop, just to say hi. The guys inside were really friendly.
There are approximately 4,000 barber shops in Hadibo, two restaurants, a scarf shop and the office for Yemenia. I never got a handle on how this bizarre economy actually functions.
Oli and I took another wander to look for weird treats.
On another saunter out I saw a Rav4 with a huge Saddam Hussein fathead sticker on the back door. These giant face stickers were popular in Yemen, which was funny for us since aside from Saddam we had no idea who any of the other guys were. I asked our driver Mohammed at least twice who the faces on the dashboard of his Land Cruiser were. I don't remember what he said but since he was from Oman I think at least one of them had to have been the Sultan of Oman.
We ate almost all of our Hadibo town meals at the restaurant immediately next door to our hotel, which was a funny mix of elements. No one there spoke any English at all, so if Bilal, the only Arabic-speaker in our group, hadn't come to breakfast yet I was totally screwed for finding something vegan. But when they weren't busy bringing me eggs or eggs or more eggs, they made amazing delicious flatbread and Mexican beans with lime. Go figure.
Our guides were completely incredible, setting up elaborate lunches for us in beautiful locations that were always ready by the time we arrived. It may have helped that they hadn't had any tourists in years. My favorite example of this was my roommate Chris buying a tin of dates from one of the street stalls in Hadibo, then sharing them with the rest of us at dinner that night. Apparently the guides noticed the way we went absolutely shithouse on those dates, because the next day there were suddenly dates for all served with our lunch.
The Socotri in general were very friendly and gracious with us, living up to their reputation as the most friendly of the Yemeni, who themselves have a reputation as the most friendly of the Arab peoples. My favorite memory of this was on one of our last nights on the island, after dinner several Yemeni guys wanted a photo with me. While we were posing, one of the guys asked me where I was from. I said "The US!" and he hilariously cringed and went "Ugggggh" right as the photo was being taken.
Of course we hadn't come to Socotra Island to hang out in Hadibo. We were here to see nature and shit!
As we motored out way out of Hadibo, we passed countless kids on dirt bikes, the dominant form of transportation on the island.
Which may be made more difficult by the fact that there were full-on rivers crossing some of the roads, which were explained to us as remnants from the rains from the rainy season months (?) ago.
A group of kids pretended to drive some kind of bombed-out former vehicle that had been abandoned by the side of the road.
Many of the random things I saw driving across the island make more sense to me now that I know about the conflicts between the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council separatists and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government on the island. Was this thing with the cool dude on the front a police station, like I originally thought, or some kind of Yemeni government military installation?
Likewise the dilapidated radar installation and rusted-out tanks we drove by every day.
On one of our drives we passed through an large convoy of military vehicles reportedly running training exercises that day. At the time we joked that they were winning the war against the goats, but now I wonder which side these guys are on and if they were involved in the miniature war that happened in Hadibo shortly after we left, or the gunfights and rocket-launcher attacks in June that saw the STC capture the security administration building from the Yemeni government.
It's been an interesting perspective-shift since we've left, since Socotra has always been considered safe and exempt from the civil war in Yemen, but now an entirely different conflict is erupting there as the UAE and Saudi Arabia fight over who's going to take Socotra away from Yemen. This clash may keep tourists from being able to visit again for a long while. We were lucky to make it there when we did.
On every drive we'd pass through security checkpoints, which were usually just a dude sitting by the road with a machine gun. Sometimes I thought we were passing a checkpoint and it was just a dude sitting by the road thinking about life.
Thankfully much of the scenery could be enjoyed without having to parse geopolitical complexities.
Our first adventure took us up narrow, rocky paths that would have made for challenging hiking, let alone driving in cars. Rather than there being an "end of the road" it seems like the drivers just stopped at a random point and we hiked the rest of the way. Our wonderful guide Adnan, my favorite Yemeni who I met on the trip, carefully checked that we all had proper shoes on for hiking and then proceeded to do the entire hike himself in flip flops.
We hopped from rock to rock, passing the odd cow and then balancing across a drainage pipe crossing the water, where BJ from the Netherlands fell in. Eventually we reached a small waterfall, where we stripped down and jumped in from a small cliff.
After jumping in, I managed to swim headfirst right into some kind of underwater pipe because I'm a ninja.
Local children had joined us for the hike and one of them really dug my sunglasses.
All in all the kids were pretty awesome and very curious about us.
After the swim, we continued on hiking through the green hills. I was walking and talking with Chris when a local woman standing by the side of the trail began yelling at us and gesturing like she was pulling down her pants. What the- Is this some kind of a come-on? I have a lot to learn about Socotri ladies of the night. It's barely even the afternoon.
The woman continued to yell in Arabic and frantically gesture at her legs. Chris and I looked at each other and shrugged as we walked by.
Later that night at dinner, Stacy from Tennessee, the only brave woman in our group, expressed anxiety over what she should pick to wear for the next day.
"There was a lady on the trail today that was really giving me hell, I think she thought I was dressed inappropriately. I guess because I was wearing shorts?"
"I wouldn't worry about it," I reassured her. "She was yelling at all of us. I think she was just crazy."
As the days went by, I mentioned the incident to several other people in our group and discovered that the crazy lady hadn't yelled at any of them when they walked past that day. Huh. Just me and Stacy. That's weir-
Oh! Ha ha, she thought I was a girl. And she was pissed off that I wasn't covered up and was immodestly wearing shorts, like that hussy Stacy. I think I've found the last place on the Earth where people have never seen a guy with long hair before. Welcome to the 1960s, Yemen. It's only going to get weirder from here.
Also, no offense Yemen but you must have some damned tall, stubbly ladies over here.
That evening we made our way to one of Socotra's massive sand dunes, formed by intense ocean winds blowing sand up against a cliff. We waded across a river spilling into the sea walked over to check out the dune.
Some locals were goofing around half-way up the dune and I decided to undertake the considerable challenge of getting up there myself.
Climbing through loose sand is a bit like slogging through mud, but the view was worth it. While I was sitting and taking in the majestic view of the sea, my friend John from the UK decided to join me.
After John's knees had had a chance to recover from the climb, he headed back down to find our group and I climbed the rest of the way up the dune to the top, only stopping when the rocks below the sand became razor sharp and unfriendly to bare feet. Ahh, this is nice.
That night we camped on the beach, which was so completely awesome it made me kind of pissed off we'd ever even seen the inside of that shitty hotel. After we arrived at the camping spot, a few of us set out to climb a lumpy red rock tower along the coast.
Oli, a mountaineer, was up at the top in a flash. Half-way up, Stacy stopped to take photos while I gradually realized that a winter off hadn't left me in the right kind of climbing shape to follow Oli's route without danger of falling off into the sea and ending my vacation early. Thankfully I found an easier route up the back side of the rock.
After hanging out up top with Oli, taking in the sunset and talking about his volunteer work and my plan to visit 30 new countries this year (ha ha, oh innocent pre-covid Sean), I climbed back down and chuckled at the dramatic goats hanging out on the rocks.
That night, standing in the moonlight and watching the waves roll in, is one of my favorite memories of the entire trip. Just a beautiful and magical moment that you don't ever want to end.
My photos in the moonlight make it look much lighter than it actually was, but manage to capture the dreaminess just the same.
The next morning we took the opportunity to snorkel right from the beach we'd been sleeping on, just wading straight unto the water until suddenly you were swimming amongst colorful fish and coral.
I took an unwise route on my way back in and got bounced off a few rocks by the choppy surf, bloodying one leg, but it was well worth it to roll out of bed right into a snorkeling adventure.
From there we took off on a long hike through a nature preserve, off to see the legendary Dragon's Blood trees. When I asked our guide why they were called Dragon's Blood trees, he told a long folklore story about two brothers that at no point involved anything having to do with dragons, blood or trees. Somebody later told me that the trees have a vivid red sap, which I took to be the reason behind the name, no offense to any folklore brothers.
We hiked up a long ridge all morning, passing random and surprised goats along the way.
I reached the top first, and sat with our small child guide, taking in the view stretching out to the sea as we waited for the rest of the group to catch up.
At the top we reached a small ledge where crystal clear mountain runoff had formed something of an infinity pool, overlooking the massive valley below.
I stripped down and jumped into the bracingly fresh water, allowing the current of the stream flowing in to push me around the pool as I floated serenely in the warm sun.
It may never have had a chance to happen in The Bahamas, but I was really enjoying the comfort I felt in the water after all that pool work I'd put in to get over the aftereffects of nearly drowning years ago. It was wonderful.
After cooling off from the long hike up we made our way to the main attraction: The trees.
Holy shit those Martian trees.
The Dragon's Blood's upward-pointing leaves siphon moisture from the fog that rolls in off the sea.
This tree truly looks like something from another planet. Sitting at the base of one, they don't feel any more Earthly than they look. The trunk feels like a thick skin inflated over something, like a volleyball. Putting my hand against the bark, a strong feminine energy radiated out from the center of the tree. I leaned back against the tree and took in the desert scene around me.
Birds flitted about as I was totally absorbed by the scene, the energy of the tree seeping deep into my body as the hot sun turned up the brightness on everything around. It felt like the whole island was moving through me as one moment stretched on, seemingly without end.
As if realizing they would be completely upstaged by the Dragon's Blood trees if they didn't bring their "A" game, the desert rose bottle trees were just as alien and the cucumber trees weren't far behind.
Mellow cows wandered the hillsides as if they didn't know they were somewhere in outer space.
The guides had told us all of the Dragon's Blood trees on the island were hundreds to thousands of years old, but that no new trees were growing. This was presented as something of a mystery, but since then I've read that it's because the omnipresent goats eat all the saplings, so the Dragon's Blood trees primarily thrive in inaccessible areas on the island. Apparently, goats couldn't be assed to make the long hike we'd just finished to get up here.
I wandered deeper and deeper into the valley, a strange kind of cosmic forest, until one of our child guides had to run me down and tell me it was time to go. I followed him back to our group and together we made the long hike back down.
We were up and out early in the morning, so we could hike up to the massive Hoq cave before the day grew too hot. Not all of the members of our group were particularly outdoorsy, and I found the trudging pace of our progress kind of depressing, so at the first opportunity I slipped past the group and made my way up the ridge on my own. Once I reached the top I heard a yell, as one of the children hired to guide us up to the cave had chased me down. Out of breath, he explained in his complete lack of English that I needed to wait for everyone else before entering the cave. Cool dude.
Over the following hour the rest of the group gradually caught up. Raoul wasn't far behind me. Jovial Krzysztof from Poland was sweating through his cap and I teased him for not bringing his laptop, his everpresent companion so far on the trip. He said he should have gone to New York instead. But that dude's been to the North Pole, so he gets a forever pass from me.
Older Chris and Andy from DC were bringing up the rear, as Chris coached Andy on taking it slow and steady to make it to the top. But the funniest of all was Lucian from Romania, who was hiking in a completely inappropriate pair of Vans and trudging extremely slowly with his head straight down, like Charlie Brown after receiving some particularly disappointing news. I felt for him, but we also called him Charlie Brown for the entire rest of the trip.
Together, we made the final approach to the cave entrance.
Somehow I ended up at the entrance alone with the guide kid again, as everyone else gradually caught up. We took in the view across the island to the sea.
Once everyone was into the mouth of the cave we regrouped and got our headlamps on.
My headlamp, brought all the way from the US and through seven countries so far on this trip, promptly broke ten feet into the cave. But thankfully our adult guide Adnan was quick with a loaner.
Inside, we all WAAAUGH SHIT the damp cave mud was slippery as hell and we slid and surfed our way down the decline into the depths of the cave. Inside, impressive rock formations were difficult to photograph but beautiful to see.
The trail went on for a few kilometers, deeper and deeper into the pitch black cave.
At the end of the trail, deep within the cave, pools of water who knows how old stood in eerie stillness as pillars loomed all around us.
Apparently there is cave writing on these walls recording visits by traders to Socotra far back into ancient times.
Our child guides were waiting for us as we emerged back out into the daylight.
On the hike back down, I was assigned my own little guide so I could descend at my own inadvisable pace.
On the loose rocks of the at-times steep trail, I quickly learned that just because a 70 pound kid can step in a spot and flit across the top of loose stones without falling on his ass in a major rock slide doesn't mean I could do the same, and that I needed to pick adult-load-bearing footholds. The kid and I developed a fun loop of interaction that went like:
"WAAAUGH SHIIIIIT *SLIDE CRASH SCREEEE* I'm fine!"
*kid glares back at me like "What is WRONG with you white man?"*
"I'm good!" *thumbs up*
At the bottom, I found our guides dancing outside with local music playing through the open doors of the waiting SUVs. They quickly looped me in and taught me their local dances, which was charming and hilarious for all involved.
Gradually, the local culture came into focus for me, usually in surprising little bursts. We were sitting in a little hut eating lunch one day when a truck drove by with the bed full of women in burqas, calling out an ululating "ALALALALLALALALALA" in unison as they went by.
"Ah, somebody must be getting married. This is a celebration!"
As we drove through the small villages on the island, kids would run out and try to sell us some kind of black muck, which we later surmised was some kind of tree resin that was good for something.
Other kids would chant a single word in Arabic as we drove by, all yelling in unison. What in the world are they saying?
"Pens! Foreigners sometimes bring them pens, which they love to draw with."
Chris and David had both worked for Yemenia Airlines and had spent plenty of time in Yemen before, and David had brought a bag of pens with him for this very reason. He was quickly swarmed by children. Some of the kids hilariously held one hand behind their back, trying to hide the fact that they'd already received a pen, in hopes of getting a second one.
I hung out with one kid and showed him how to take a selfie with my phone.
I thought of my mom bringing a Polaroid camera to Tibet, thinking she could give kids photos of themselves and then discovering that everyone there had a cell phone. You should have brought that camera to Yemen, mom.
As we drove slowly through one village, we passed a school bus where teenagers were being dropped off after school. Just like on the plane, all the burqa'd teen girls were sitting in the back of the bus. After getting off the bus, a few approached our car and Mohammed stopped so we could talk to them.
We said the few greetings we knew in Arabic and the girls looked at me and Andy and after a pause asked "What... are you?"
Ha ha, thanks. That is now my favorite foreign greeting. We surely looked even more strange to them than they did to us. With the way things have been going in Yemen these last six or seven years, who knows the last time these girls saw a Westerner? If ever?
One of the girls offered Andy the bag of treats she was eating, which was very sweet of her. They were some kind of corn hunks that were kind of gross but it was a great gesture.
We stopped in one village to buy some local crafts from the women there. Walking into the shop, I tried not to laugh out loud when I saw that there were photos of each of the craftswomen on the wall. All wearing burqas. So, six identical photos of black-cloth-covered women with only their eyes visible. I suppose in this culture you get really good at identifying people by their eyes, but we weren't quite there yet. I wondered if these women were wearing burqas in their passport photos. I mean, almost certainly none of these women had passports. But how does that work otherwise? There must be some kind of exception made for ID photos. And women must have to lift their veils when going through security at the airport, otherwise the whole thing would never work.
The village was full of very plain, squat grey homes, differentiated only by their colorful doors.
Clearly this was somebody's favorite goat.
While we were waiting in the street for members of our group to buy baskets and hats and shit, the window of the house next door opened and a teenaged girl stuck her head out. She was very curious about who we were and why we had come to Socotra. I'm not sure she believed our answers.
I wondered when the girls had to start wearing burqas. The little girls weren't wearing them. Puberty seemed to be the obvious answer, but it's not like that's a single day you can mark on the calendar.
Every time we left to go somewhere, we were free to hop into any of the SUVs we wanted, but we pretty quickly formed our little cliques and bonded with our favorite drivers. Andy and John and I rode every day with Mohammed, the young Omani who was very sweet and quick with a big smile. The only time this got awkward was when we tried to figure out what the video was that Mohammed was playing on the Land Cruiser's large dashboard screen.
"Wedding!" Mohammed explained enthusiastically in his very limited English.
Okay, yeah, it looks like a wedding. Lots of people dressed up and dancing. Music. Some people up on a stage. But where's the bride? Maybe she shows up later.
After a while I realized the video was only about ten minutes long and had been looping over and over for the entire long drive. Where's the bride?
There's a guy in his 30s who looks like he's obviously the groom, he's up on the stage. Okay. And there are the flower girls up there too. So cute. But why does the bride never show up?
Andy and John and I were discussing this when we suddenly realized what was going on.
That eight year old girl isn't the flower girl. That's the bride.
Ohhhhhh shit, this is awkward.
How could that even work? This can't be-
I asked Chris about it later and he confirmed that yeah, they do marry off pre-teens in Yemen. Poor families are eager to get rid of that extra mouth to feed and eager for the dowry. Supposedly the groom waits until puberty hits before they uh, consumate the relationship. But reading the stories of women who have fled Yemen, who were married off at 8, or 10, or 11, that's not what actually happens. Wow.
The video looped awkwardly as we sat in silence. I kept trying not to look at the screen as the scenery rolled by and the festive music played.
We wheeled through a dusty little town, where a little boy threw a rock at our Land Cruiser and Mohammed had to stop and give him a stern talking-to, which was adorable. On the other side of the town we pulled up to a rocky outcrop and were cut loose for the evening to explore. Several of us climbed a nearby rock formation and looked across the valley to some kind of small building on top of the opposite peak.
Surveying the landscape from above, far below us there was a beautiful beach.
The water was so clear you could see fish swimming near the coast, even from this distance. On the beach itself, large yellow somethings were swarming around on the sand and frolicking in the surf. What are those- crabs? Oh cool. I hiked down to the water's edge to check them out.
Weird little crab tracks cris-crossed the sand.
Walking along the water, it was like I had a personal force-field, as the sand was blanked with crabs except for a moving radius around me.
Every step I took, a new wave of crabs would scurry into the surf to avoid me, then float to the surface of the water and poke their little crab eyes on stalks up out of the water to see if I'd gone yet.
Once they spotted me again they'd flinch OH SHIT and run away sideways, comically fast, beneath the water.
After a million crabs had done this one after the other like a repeating loop in a video game, I slowly followed one of them into the surf to see what would happen. The nanosecond he realized I was following him, the crab burrowed straight down, disappearing into the sand in a flash as if through a trap door.
The sun went down while I was playing with the crabs and the tide began to come in.
I turned around and my entire group was gone. Just gone. Huh. They must have gone back up the hill to where the Land Cruisers had dropped us off. I made my way through a game of local kids playing soccer on the beach and climbed the sandy hill.
Nope. Nobody up here. Huh. Oli had said something about camping on the other side of this rock formation, so I hiked over there. Nobody. Did they go all the way back to town? It's going to be super-awkward if I hike two miles back to town and nobody's there. But where else could they be?
It was completely dark out now, and I met many mellow locals passing by as I wandered around for an hour, looking for any sign of my friends. Man, they are just gone.
Well, it's not a real trip if I don't end up lost in some improbable place. Maybe they're camping further down the beach. I decided to climb to the highest peak in the rocky range to see if I could spot any lights from a campground.
Once I'd climbed to the top in the pitch black I saw a wobbly light moving slowly up the beach. I turned on my phone flashlight and waved it overhead, and the wobbly light waved back. I made my way down the slippery mountain in the dark and on the beach below Oli was waiting with our guide Adnan. Bizarrely, both of them were on a motorcycle. This had not been part of the mix at all up until this moment and I briefly considered if I had lapsed into a young adult romance novel.
It turned out the group was camping a few miles up the beach and local kids had given all of our folks motorcycle rides, one by one, up the beach to the campgrounds. Word of this plan had just never made it to the crab colony. Adnan gestured for me to climb on the back of the dirt bike that was already too small for himself and Oli, neither of them small men.
Oh, we're doing this?
The only other option was to walk miles up the beach in the dark to a place where I didn't know where it was, so I gingerly perched onto the inch of available motorcycle seat that was left. Adnan pulled away wobbily and I grabbed Oli's shoulders to keep from falling face-first off the bike and waved my legs around continually as we wobbled, having no good place to put them as I tried not to touch the hot exhaust pipe or catch my feet on the ground an inch away, sending us all tumbling off the bike and into the surf.
Clutching another man's shoulders as we motored along in the ocean spray under the moon in an exotic land would be, I realize now, a fantastic time for a coming of age story where I discover in this moment that I was gay all along, but sadly I ended the ride as boringly hetero as ever.
Adnan saved his best for last and nearly flipped the bike as we puttered into camp, before screeching to a sudden, sandy halt.
Well then. That was my first time on a motorcycle.
When I was 19, I had a past life reading that overall seemed pretty accurate, and when the reader then delved into scenes from my future, he described in great detail me being involved in a terrible motorcycle accident that would serve as a turning point in my life. I questioned the accuracy of this vision at the time since I'd never ridden on a motorcycle before and had no plans to start any time soon. I think my actual words were "I wouldn't ride a motorcycle if a dinosaur were chasing me." So it seemed like either a bogus or very easily avoidable prediction, and I never got on a motorcycle after that. Until I found myself on that dark beach in Yemen.
Apparently, this wasn't my day for tragedy. Just comical bizarreness in the moonlight.
Our hike up to the Homhil plateau wasn't our only chance to see Dragon's Blood trees on the island, as they were sprinkled all around and we'd frequently break up our long drives to pull over and get a photo with the trees.
The pretty and alien desert rose bottle and cucumber trees were also spread all over.
I also really enjoyed checking out the other strange, endemic plants on the island, some of which looked like tiny trees when photographed up close.
Likewise, the rocky beaches seemed to mirror the rocky peaks in the distance.
We spent one evening driving out to the West coast of the island to watch the sunset. As we trundled across the scrubland, I laughed at a goat that was wearing a board tied around his waist with a rope, like an out of work New Yorker in 1930. Our driver explained that this was like a goat condom, because it make it impossible for the sandwich-boarded goat to mount another goat and get his freak on.
The driver also explained that he prefers to eat the goats that come from out in these villages, rather than the goats from Hadibo. They tasted better, he said. Well no kidding, the goats in Hadibo spend their whole day eating plastic bags and underwear, they can't taste that great.
The sun set and I wandered along the beach until I spotted something strange on the ground.
Oh wow, it's the skeleton of a little fish. That's so sad! I wonder what happened to this little dude?
I spent a few minutes kneeling and pondering this little fish's fate, way up high on the beach, far from the ocean. Then I stood up and took a few more steps, and realized I was in the middle of an absolute sea of fish skeletons. Thousands upon thousands of these same kind of fish had met their fate on this strange beach.
I asked our guides later and they said they were likely thrown up on the beach by a tsunami or a typhoon. Ah.
Further up the beach there was a huge whale bone. Damn, that was quite some typhoon.
At the far western tip of the island, the moon rose in the sky as I checked out a channel through the rock that served as a fish freeway, hundreds of little fish zooming through this thoroughfare.
We gradually got to know the other animals on the island as well. One of the most prevalent was the Egyptian Vulture, which always showed up in force when we were eating outdoors.
This is probably the prettiest vulture I've ever seen, not that that's a compliment anyone is vying for.
One of our days featured a boat ride to a secluded beach on the remote far side of the island.
We motored through incredible turquoise waters, and you could look straight down and see the alive version of those little skeleton fish swimming right under the boat as we zipped along.
The secluded beach did not disappoint.
Jumping in to snorkel here, the water was disappointingly empty of interesting fish, but it was great to be in the water none the less. I thought about how I'd spent the last week alternately hiking and swimming, hiking and swimming. What a dreamy time. The really magical thing about Socotra is that we had it to ourselves. It was like going to Hawaii and somehow being the only tourists there.
When we returned to the beach where we had started the boat journey, the waters were full of locals in their own boats, and adorably, children in homemade boats hammered out of oil drums.
The kids who weren't lucky enough to have their own oil drum boat had to make do with toy boats they dragged behind them on a leash, like the Socotri version of a Tonka truck.
Everyone on the beach was very excited to see us and curious about what was going on with these aliens in their midst, but short on the English necessary to express this to us directly.
After returning to camp we hiked off to a cave in the hills to meet Abdullah the Caveman, a local who fished and, as the name implies, lived in a cave.
He served the group fresh octopus and sea urchin as he told us stories about the mysteries of the hidden inner recesses of his cave and the time he found a dead whale on the beach and was able to sell as much ambergris as he could carry away for a small fortune.
After all this excitement I went back to my tent to meditate for a bit and watched as Andy was surrounded by a gang of curious local kids.
Eventually Andy was able to break away from the kids and walk across the sea at low tide to a nearby island.
I walked over at one point to make sure he hadn't been washed away or taken by Somali pirates, at which point I was surrounded by the same local kids. We had a pretty hilarious conversation considering the entire extent of their English was "UNDERTAKER!" and "Brock Lesnar!!" So yes, apparently they get American professional wrestling in Yemen. That this was the kids' only exposure to the US was a little troubling, but it could have been worse, they could have seen Cats.
We were camped in a little valley between two peaks, which was nice but didn't provide much of a view of the sunset, so I decided to climb one of the peaks before dinner. The road out of camp quickly petered out and I was hiking through the scrub, the lights of the nearest town flickering on in the distance.
Up at the top, I was greeted by two goats, who seemed a little shy about intruding in my privacy and so made their way back down the steep rock face.
Up top I meditated and watched the sun set. I felt the energy of my interactions with Christ a week earlier in Israel come back to me as my whole body buzzed and I felt my consciousness floating around the rocky peak. Again I felt the potential to manifest into this life something truly remarkable, as the limitations of what I'd previously believed possible gradually melted away. I felt thrilled about where I was and what I was doing. Wow. This is great.
After the sun went down I could see our campsite, glowing down in the dark.
I decided to head back down for dinner, opting not to turn on my flashlight as I really enjoy hiking in the dark. There's something about how present you become when you can't see, and the way your other senses amplify to compensate, that I've always found magical. I was half-way down from the peak, walking through a herd of goats in the pitch black when they all suddenly realized I was there and took off down the road in a panic. You can cancel your experiments on goats' night vision: It's not very good.
Walking up the road in the dark, an eerie tribal music echoed across the valley. Is there a town on this side that I can't see? Some kind of dance was going on. As I grew closer and the sound swelled out of the blackness, I realized it was two cars parked next to each other on the road I was walking along, both with their windows down, playing the same music. As I passed by, the people in the cars shot me my 100th "What are you DOING, white man??" look of the trip.
I briefly wondered if I was 100% safe as another car approached up the dirt road headed back to camp, but as it rolled by I realized it was Mohammed. Hey dude!
Waking up the next morning to some curious goats outside my tent was another one of my favorite experiences of the trip.
This wasn't my last climb of the trip, as Oli and I found some sand dunes even bigger than the first and resolved to climb the biggest one.
Andy and David joined us but quickly gave up when they found climbing the steep sand wall completely impossible. I found that you had to not only climb on all fours like a dog, but you needed to punch and kick with your fists and feet, stabbing them as deep into the sand as you could to get traction and climb continuously or else you'd slide back down with the shifting sands.
Once we got to the more stable sand I had to stop a few times to keep from barfing, as it was a really long and intense climb.
I was almost to the top when I saw Oli run by, sprinting down the dune with his phone out in selfie mode.
Reaching the rock wall at the top was quite rewarding, and sweaty.
I briefly considering peeing off the top but decided against it, later realizing this was a good choice when I found out our whole group had been watching my entire ascent from the bottom.
After catching my breath and enjoying the view, I sprinted down the entire dune, which was both fun and exciting since sections of different density in the sand would cause you to either suddenly start to sink in to the knees or snowboard across the top of the hard sand on your bare feet.
Once I reached the bottom, everybody was gone. Uh-oh. This keeps happening!
I jogged up the road and realized the last two cars were just at the next beach over, waiting for Oli and me to finish our climb. Whew!
On our last full day of the trip we drove out to a huge expanse of sand dunes, which weren't tall like the ones on the coast but none the less fun to run across.
Once I got far out across the dunes I was intercepted by some really pissed off bees, who wanted to make it very clear that this was THEIR sand dune. Jeez bees, calm down.
Our last adventure was exploring another cave on the far side of the island.
After I got done exploring I sat down on a rock and watched the birds swooping in and out of the cave all around us. I closed my eyes and meditated, tuning in to the sounds echoing off the cave walls. I went to some place very far away, within the echoing sounds, leaving my body entirely and going into a deep peace. Timeless time passed. I snapped back to my body suddenly as Adnan called for everyone that it was time to leave. Wow. That was nice!
The final morning of our trip came and we sadly loaded up into the Land Cruisers to head back to the airport. We said sad goodbyes to Mohammed and shlepped our bags up to the front of the airport, which... didn't seem to actually be open. We weren't too worried about this since there is only one flight to/from Socotra every week, so the airport is just closed the rest of the time. We kicked aside the goat shit and hunkered down on the sidewalk to wait for the airport to open.
My phone burped to life with the first real cell signal of the trip.
"Welcome to the United Arab Emirates."
Thanks, weirdo. I cracked open my laptop and within a minute, work emails came streaming through.
As I tapped away, gradually rumors filtered in that the plane coming to get us from the mainland had been delayed. Hmm. Well, whaddaya gonna do?
I looked up from an exchange of work emails and Slack messages and laughed out loud as I realized there was no way anyone on the other end of those messages in Minneapolis had any idea that I was working while sitting on the sidewalk in front of a stone-age airport, while the goat next to me on the sidewalk ate a cardboard box. I love my life.
The hours ticked by and people started to get nervous. There was word of a sandstorm in Seiyun that was delaying our plane's departure. The tension was alleviated somewhat when the ice cream man's truck arrived out of nowhere.
Wow. Wow wow wow. Awesomely, this wasn't Socotra's only ice cream truck.
Gradually the rumors grew more and more pessimistic. And then word came. The plane wasn't coming until tomorrow. We'd have to stay on Socotra an extra night.
Generally staying on a beautiful island for longer than you had expected to is good news, but most of us had onward flights that night that were going to be completely screwed up now. I was supposed to be flying to Oman for a day, before I continued on to Bahrain and then Kuwait. Now I was going to have to buy a new ticket and skip Oman entirely.
People were generally grouchy about why they didn't just send the plane later in the day after the sandstorm ended. Then it came out that with the civil war going on, both the Yemeni army and the rebel forces know when the one flight a week leaving Seiyun for Socotra is passing overhead. Like clockwork every week at that time. Any other plane passing overhead at any other time? Doesn't that look like an enemy plane? It kind of does! You might want to shoot it down just to be on the safe side.
Our gripes quickly melted away as we realized an earlier departure would have put us at the mercy of some random dude with a rocket launcher having a good day at work and exercising restraint. This was exactly what happened to the Ukraine International Airlines flight that was shot down over Iran back in January. And the Malaysia Airlines flight that was shot down over Ukraine in 2014. Yeah, we're cool with leaving tomorrow, now. Does the hotel restaurant still have those great beans?
We spent the afternoon hanging out at the beach and swimming in the surf. I was almost sucked out to sea by the riptide before Chris pointed out that, hey Sean, you're getting sucked out to sea by the riptide. Thanks Chris.
I also met some local guys who found this weird jellyfish thing.
That night when I was wandering around Hadibo I improbably ran into Lucian, Krzysztof, Stacy and their driver, and somehow ended up going out with them for ice cream in a cute little parlor, between the town's random power outages.. . . .
Since I've been home it's been interesting to reflect on this trip. Yemen stands out as possibly the most dangerous place I've been to, though personally I thought Honduras and a few other places have felt much sketchier. It really depends on what variety of danger you're thinking of. Since then I had been catching some shit from friends who thought I was taking irresponsible risks by traveling to here or there. Honestly I think they're pretty misinformed about what actually is or isn't dangerous, and the more misinformed someone is the more eager they seem to be to forcefully share their opinions. But it all seemed to be inspired by caring so I tried not to take issue with how this concern was expressed.
Then covid happened. Then covid really happened in the US. Then riots broke out in Minneapolis, where I live, following the murder of George Floyd by the police here. This was a particularly crazy few weeks, as I was going to sleep every night to the sound of gunshots out my window and continual sirens and helicopters, as the city burned. At the height of it I had a bag packed by my front door with money, pepper spray, my passport and other essentials in it, that I could grab at a moment's notice on the way out the door if my building was set on fire. I was considering going to California to wait this all out, but quickly the highways in and out of the state were closed to prevent even more white supremacists and anarchists from coming to Minneapolis to join in the rioting here.
To state the hopefully obvious, I've never experienced anything even remotely like this in any of the "dangerous" countries I've visited in my travels. I've never spent a week locked in my place because people were just randomly shooting guns downtown, and the national guard was responding by shooting reporters in the face with rubber bullets. I would have rather been in Yemen for any of those weeks.
In the end, I decided to stay in Minneapolis because it felt like I had been grounded here and unable to travel for a reason. Maybe the energy work I've been doing around the globe to help shift things on Earth is needed in Minneapolis right now. So I stayed, and meditated on sending love to everyone involved in this situation. As horrified as I was by what had happened to George Floyd, I knew that it wasn't my role to feed into the polarization and separation consciousness that was manifesting all around me as a result of this event. I wanted to change the culture of the police and the institutional racism that exists here as much as anyone, but I also recognized that we are all of us, all of this. We are George Floyd and Derek Chauvin and everyone in-between. We've all been victims and we've all hurt others through our bias and unconsciousness in this life or another. Through our inability to see ourselves in them.
It may make us feel good to cast ourselves righteously into one side of the conflict, but ultimately in time we grow to see that we're one with all of these people. That doesn't change the need for structural reform in our society or invalidate the work people are doing right now to make sure those changes happen, but so much of our energy right now is going into demanding that other people change. When our opportunity in the moment is always to change ourselves. And so I sat and poured love into the protestors and the police and Floyd's family and everyone wrapped up in this whole drama.
It reminded me vividly of being in The Bahamas and doing energetic work during the hurricane there, pouring love into the hurricane and everyone whose pain was manifested in nature's violent reaction and energetic purging. I realized that experience had prepared me in a way for this one.
And hopefully that helped on some level. Things quickly died down and the conflict became more civil and with luck productive, whether that had anything at all to do with the work I was doing or not.
About a week later, something very interesting happened. We had a massive rainstorm. I was standing out on my balcony as the dark clouds rolled in and I could feel something epic coming. Later, as the rain slammed down, the loudest thunder I've ever heard in my life suddenly hit in the sky outside my window. The sound was so loud it seemed to split reality in half, like the dimensions were parting and revealing what was beyond. It was a truly surreal experience, an instant that expanded in time as I seemed to be seeing into the inner workings of reality. I jumped up involuntarily and for a moment I didn't even know what had happened. I had experienced this momentary shattering of reality, like splitting the atom, and I wasn't sure if I was dead or what had happened. Gradually I realized it had just been unbelievable, shattering thunder.
It struck me that this storm was nature's way of purging the crazy energies of the previous week. The elementals were bringing things back into balance. And it was a big, loud job.
I'm leaving the US this week. I haven't seen a friendly face in person since covid started, so I'm going to spend some quality time with my brother and sister in Wales. And then from there, hopefully travel around Europe for a few months. With any luck my quarantine time in the UK will prove that I'm not importing covid from the US and grant me more travel flexibility than someone coming straight from the US would get. We'll see how it goes. But the things I've found funny so far have been people's reactions, their concern about me going overseas. I'm leaving the country with by far the most covid cases in the world and yet people are worried I'm going to go to Europe and catch covid. I guess that sense that what's here and known is safer than what's there and unknown dies hard, even when here, the city is on fire and we can't even seem to agree on if we should, you know, actually try to contain this virus or not.. . . .
In the morning we were back at the airport, which did us a solid by actually opening this time. I had managed to completely run out of cash yet again, so I needed to Venmo Andy to pay him back while also buying a plane ticket onward from Cairo, all before we left the tiny airport bubble of cell signal. My phone kept acquiring and losing signal for twenty seconds every few minutes, so I had to get a plane ticket booked within a twenty second window. This was a lot like attempting a speed run of Super Mario Bros, and I died several times before I finally got a purchase to go through.
I'd booked a ticket on Air Arabia, and my new layover was in a town I'd never heard of in Saudi Arabia. Cool, I may have missed out on Oman but I'm getting another country in exchange! Saudi Arabia had juuuust opened its doors to tourism, after years of it being nearly impossible to visit. What great timing.
After we landed in Cairo we all said our goodbyes, Raoul giving me advice on what to see when I was in Saudi Arabia and John and I making plans to meet up again on a trip to the Central African Republic next year. I sat down on my laptop to work on my eVisa for Saudi Arabia. I was sitting in the same holding pen where I'd been trapped on my way to Yemen, but now I was used to all of this and it seemed quasi-normal.
What wasn't normal was the Saudi Arabia eVisa website. I'd painstakingly entered all my extensive information, only to have the form reject me and start over again once I entered the name of the hotel where I was staying in Sharjah. I wasn't actually staying there, since I was only spending the daylight hours in Saudi Arabia before leaving again, but I had to put something in the form to get a visa. I looked up the name and contact information for another hotel in Sharjah and entered it into the form. Rejected. Damn, do they know I haven't actually booked a room? No way are they that organized.
The form rejected me a few more times as the minutes ticked down to when my flight out of Cairo was leaving. Probably a good idea to have a visa before I get on the plane! I tried again. This time after I entered the hotel address I clicked on the little map icon inside the form. Huh. Why isn't it showing my hotel? Maybe I need to zoom out? I zoomed out. And out. And waaaaay out. Oh, there's the pin! Way over there! What's it doing in-
Sharjah is in the United Arab Emirates. Not Saudi Arabia. During my ticket-buying speed run I had just assumed that a Saudi Arabian airline would have their layovers inside Saudi Arabia.
And that begins the story of how I went to Dubai on accident.