A trip of goats (Socotra part I)

The first striking thing about Socotra is the goats. What, you say? Goats? On the ‘galapagos of the Indian Ocean,’ the magical dragon-blood-tree island paradise? Yep. Goats. When we pulled into Hadibo, the island’s uninspiring capital, the first thing I noticed was a scruffy-looking kid (the four-legged kind), lounging on top of a Jeep. A ubiquitous presence on the island, goats are everywhere . . . in the road, blocking your car . . . in your tent, eating your cashews . . . you get the idea.

Hadibo, with it’s muddy streets and turquoise-painted doors, has little to offer besides canned goods and mediocre hotels, so we didn’t spend much time there. My charming and excellent travelling companion, Marcella, a free-spirited Doctor Without Borders (she cures AIDS!), made a few calls around town while we drank milky sweet tea, and before long we had engaged the services of a driver (Dar) and a four-wheeled vehicle for the remainder of the day.

Our initial plan had been to meet up with a group of climbers working on developing sport-climbing on the island. We heard that they were probably camping to the East at a place called Arar, so we hopped in the car and headed out. At Arar we found the climber’s camp, but no people, so we told our driver to take us to a beach. Our driver’s English vocabulary consisted primarily of no problem my friend, but he nonetheless managed to find us a swath of smooth sand along the Eastern coast. The weather was windy and the sea rough, but the turquoise-blue water was surprisingly warm, so we splashed around in the breaks before retreating to the beach and letting the wind blow-dry us.

Returning to camp, we found the French climbers but not our friends from Sanaa. One had gone home and the other had set off on a week-long trek across the length of the island. So that was pretty much the end of our carefully-planned itinerary.

Somewhat optimistically given the heavy winds and uncooperatively cloudy sky, I tried sleeping out on the dunes that night. Of course it rained. I woke up the next morning in the (leaking tent), annoyed about the inauspicious start to what was supposed to be a tropical island vacation. The day was wet and the temperatures hovered just above cold, so we decided to visit Hoq cave.

The trail up to the cave was lovely, winding through sparse groves of bottle trees. We saw at least a few bottle trees every day on the island and I developed an abiding affection for them. The trees are little botanical practical jokes, with funny stunted limbs springing forth from wide, voluptuous trunks. Fat little arboreal gnomes, they look like bonsais grafted onto full-sized trunks.

Hoq is a long cave (more than 3k long) stocked with the requisite impressive stalagmites and stalactites. Which we could not see very well because 1) we had no guide, and 2) our only light source was a single weak headlamp. At some point, long after the natural light from the cave entrance had winked out, Marcella casually said “I just got this light from a friend. I don’t even know how much of the battery is left . . .” Ah, the thrill of adventure. Nonetheless, we made it out in time to get thoroughly rained on on our way down the mountain. We sheltered under an overhanging rock for the worst of the shower, but eventually we gave it up and went to sit damply on the rocky, trash-covered beach. I watched Marcella cheerfully interact with a group of village boys, making valiant efforts to scold them in broken Arabic for smashing the local crabs with rocks. (I maintain that they were going to eat them).

Dar showed up early the next morning to carry us forward on our island adventures. We stopped briefly in Hadibo for supplies (our diet consisted mainly of unrelenting tuna fish and crackers/bread/noodles), and then began the very pretty drive up into the mountains. Due to the caprices of geography, the interior of the island is nearly always cloudy, and a flat mist hugged the peaks of the high Harghir mountains. We stopped on the Diksam plateau to photograph the legendary dragon’s-blood trees. In arabic, the trees are called the “blood of the two brothers” trees (damm al-akhawain). The legend goes thusly: “there were two brothers, and they had a fight, and one of them bled, and then a tree grew . . .” (or something like that, I probably should have paid more attention). In any case, they are very pretty, and they emit a bright crimson sap which is sold in powdered form in many locations on the island. Apparently you can make it into tea for lady-troubles, but I haven’t been brave enough to try. Dar dropped us off somewhere around the plateau for the walk down into Wadi Dirho. Shortly after beginning our walk, we met this fellow (or lady).

Dar called this guy a "step-by-step," which is a remarkably accurate description of a chameleon's pacing.

The Lonely Planet’s tagline for Socotra invites tourists to “act like a medieval knight and search for dragons and the secret of eternal life in stupendous Socotra.” I have beef with LP generally, but this particular bit of travel writing pretty well satirizes itself. Needless to say, this was the closest we came to ‘finding a dragon.’ Down in the Wadi, we wandered up and downstream, swimming in the lovely clear pools that form along the canyon, appreciating the large numbers skittering purple crabs in many of the pools.

Q: Hey, in remote, rural locations lacking basic sanitation and hygeine, don’t you have to worry about schistosomiasis from swimming in freshwater pools?

A: No problem, my friend.

The sun was going down (one disadvantage to visiting Socotra during the darkest part of the year), so we headed back up to our ‘eco-camp’ on Diksam plateau. Those interested in linguistics will appreciate knowing that ‘eco-camp,’ translated from arabic into english, means roughly “flat spot on the ground that your driver points to and says ‘we will camp here!'” My friend. No problem. Of course, it was a very pretty spot.

I took this picture at the eco-camp. The black thing in the front is a dead dragon's blood tree.

Part II coming soon!

Posted in livestock, nature, socotra, tourism | 1 Comment

Coffee and other drugs

Yemen and coffee go way back. The word “coffee” originally comes from the Turkish “kahve,” which comes from the Arabic “qahwa.” While legend and Wikipedia generally locate coffee’s genesis in Ethiopia, the drink has always had strong ties to the Arabian peninsula. One account has a Yemeni Sufi mystic discovering coffee during his travels in Ethiopia. Another story recounts the tale of an Oromo goatherd who noticed the local birds getting agitated after eating a certain variety of red berries. Feeling especially energized when he ate the berries himself, he took the bush’s seeds to a local Muslim holy man . . . who, offended, threw the seeds into his fire. Where they turned into delicious, delicious roasted coffee.


Coffee first appears in recorded history in the 15th century Sufi monasteries of Yemen. If you ask for coffee at a local cafe it’s likely as not to be Nescafe. Sadly, the drink has not fared well since then. You cannot get a Mocha in Mocha. Coffee culture in the country (aside from two American-run, Starbucks-styled coffeehouses) is dead. There are a couple reasons for this. The first is a pervasive problem within Yemeni society:




Qat is a mildly narcotic evergreen bush chewed by some huge percentage of Yemeni adults (maybe 75%). It is ubiquitous. One of the first things you notice about Yemen (after the ninjas), is the huge number of men on the street who look like they’ve stuffed a tennis ball in their cheek. Nope, it’s not a malignant growth. It’s a qat ball.

I've heard reports of newly arrived health workers marveling at the number of massive cheek tumors they see.

A well-known Yemeni writer called the plant the “green imam who rules over our republic.” It is a bigger time-suck than Facebook. Yeah. Think about that for a second.


What does qat have to do with coffee? Well, as far as I can tell, any farmer who can grow qat does grow qat. It’s about six times more profitable than food crops. And the only real input it requires is lots and lots of water.


Q: Wait . . . surely water is prohibitively expensive in an arid desert country with a dwindling water table?

A: NOPE! It’s free! FREE! You just put in a pump and pull it out of the ground for FREE!

Q: But wait . . . what happens when the water table dries up . . . isn’t that supposed to happen in like, 7 years or something?



So, bye-bye coffee trees.




Nope, I don’t mean ‘tea,’ I mean tea. Tea is the drink of choice in Yemen these days. I was asking my Arabic teacher about why this is, and he gave me two surprising answers:


1. Tea is better because it has much more caffeine than coffee. Yep. I don’t get it either.

2. Coffee is for girls. Yep, you heard it. Tea is a powerful, manly drink. Unlike coffee, which is apparently unsuitable for powerful, manly manly-men. Except for first thing in the morning. But after that, it’s only for the broads. Yep. I don’t get it either.


In any case, following our long conversation about coffee (in which it took me far, far too long to figure out that the arabic word bunn means ‘bean’) my Arabic tutor brought me two kinds of Yemeni coffee- white coffee and roasted coffee.

Ebony . . . and ivory . . .

Per his instructions, I boiled up the roasted coffee with some ginger, added the mandatory 8 spoonfuls of sugar, and sucked it down. It tasted like . . . coffee with ginger and sugar? Anyhow, report coming later about the white coffee.


Posted in beverages, qat, that is whack, women | 1 Comment

You want to enter Paradise but you do not work for it

Saleh mosque, Sanaa

During my first month in Yemen, anyone who was driving me anywhere in the city would ask “have you seen the big mosque?” as we drove by the big mosque. Now, the Saleh mosque would be nearly impossible to miss, being 1) humongous and 2) the only building in Yemen that looks really nice. It’s practically brand new building, completed in 2008 for the measly price of $60 million. But don’t worry— Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh wasn’t squandering state funds. Nope, he built the mosque with his own personal fortune. Yemeni’s I have talked to have been pleased to repeat this line. “He built us a mosque! With his own money!” How generous of him!

Both financed by a Muslim leader's own personal fortune!

So my friend M. and I decided to visit. I popped a scarf over my hair, borrowed an abeya from the mosque’s much-neglected tourist police (an abeya which closed up the front with Velcro—yahoo tearaway abeya), and we wandered around the building. It’s a big place, which can hold many thousands of worshippers. I heard many numbers tossed out  during the visit, from 20K to 60K—the official website says that full capacity is 44,000. The plush carpets and huge open interior made me feel like doing cartwheels. Which probably would have been frowned upon. It seemed like a great place for children to play, and they were, running all over the place.


At some point, somebody said “Hey look! Foreigners!” and ushered M. and I into the women’s section, where we got free juice and joined some sort of Malaysian delegation for a formal tour of the mosque. Apparently they’re planning on turning a huge section into a ‘college of world religions,’ where all religions will be studied. Buddhism! Christianity! Jewish! Etc.

Fatima chants Qur'an

Our charming female guide (who I will call Fatima, because I have no clue what her real name is) showed us the women’s section. The decorative wooden screens in the women’s section don’t actually give you a very good view into the main mosque, but that’s cool because you can watch the action on big closed-circuit TVs. Oh, how modern technology facilitates the seclusion of Arab women from public life! Fatima chanted some Qur’an for us and then began a lengthy explanation of how Christians are actually Muslims. Her English was a little hard to follow, but apparently there was a lot of Jewish meddling with the ‘real’ holy books, and I guess if you read the bible closely enough it tells you all about Mohammed (that college of religions is starting to look like either a very good or a very bad idea). Anyhow, Fatima took us back to get our shoes, loaded us down with Islamic literature (example pictured below—it came with candy!) and gently but persistently tried to convert us. Anyone who knows me well should understand why it is hard for me to explain why I believe in Jesus instead of Mohammed.

P.S. Muslims believe in Jesus too, they just don’t buy into the whole ‘son-of-god’ thing. They’d probably get along well in that respect with a lot of early Christian scholars. Jesus’ birth is in the Qur’an, but not his death. Which is why Christmas is a public Muslim holiday!!! Woo hoo!

Posted in architecture, islam, mosques | Leave a comment

Zombie brides from planet ninja

It’s not hard to get an invite to a Yemeni wedding. I was hanging out after belly dancing class and someone said “hey, wanna go to a wedding?”

Sure! So I borrowed a sparkly top and some harem pants (yeah—I know) from a friend, slapped on some makeup and popped into the Doctors Without Borders party wagon. We made a slight detour on the way to buy some qat (more on that in later posts).

Before I describe my first impressions of the PAR-TAY, let me note that interacting with Yemeni women can depress your spirits. The streets in Yemen are full of two things:

1. Men
2. Ninjas

Most conversations and articles about what muslim women do/don’t/can/can’t/should wear bore the snot out of me. I care a lot more about Arab women’s employment opportunities than their fashion choices. But the Niqab is a killer. It’s hard to interact with women when you can’t see them grin, talk, or stick their tongues out at you. I would venture that 95+% of Yemeni women wear the full Niqab.

Does this picture show a) Lauren in a photoshopped niqab, or b) Darth Vader?

Yemeni weddings are segregated, which means that the NIQABS COME OFF. The reception hall was a shock of color. Drag queens could learn a thing or two from these girls. Outfits ran the gamut from short shorts and newsboy caps to gold sequin minidresses and everything in between. Short multi-tiered sherbet-colored cocktail dresses? Check. Long black and orangeish gown with inexplicable yellow feathers all over the place? Check. Skirt, bra, and utterly sheer cow-print mumu? Check. If RuPaul ever runs out of lamet I’ll know why.

Music was a mix of East and West. At one point I rushed over to join the electric slide but the music stopped before I got there.

About an hour after we got there, the hired dancers came out to perform. Dressed in pink robes, with matching pink niqabs, and pointy pink princess hats, they looked exactly like sparkling, bubblegum-hued Klansmen.

Not exactly what I'd choose for MY bridesmaids . . .

In any case, after their unimpressive performance, the bride made her entrance with the help of both smog and bubble machines, down a long catwalk in the center of the room. Her snail-like progress toward the sparkly princess sofa on the other side of the hall was fastidiously, excruciatingly documented by an earnest photographer lady. (They do indeed take photos, which are apparently shown only to family. Word on the street is that any strange women who make it into the photos are photoshopped out).

At this point the brides duty is, apparently, to sit on her throne and pose for photos. She does not get to dance or talk to anyone.

Also, she wears whiteface. Full forehead-to-chest makeup a good four shades lighter than her natural skin tone. How whack is that? ZOMBIE BRIDE IS COMING FOR YOU.

Posted in that is whack, weddings, women | 1 Comment