The Wonder Land of Socotra, Yemen

As for Americans, well, there weren’t many. I could understand: a conservative Arab country hardly seems like a good first choice for a vacation, much less the country where, in 2000, Al Qaeda forces bombed the U.S.S. Cole; where, in 2006, tribesmen kidnapped a group of French tourists; and where (according to my guidebook) a Kalashnikov can be had for only a little over $100. But whatever Yemen’s troubles, Socotra is far removed from them. Everyone I met was garrulous and open, and seemed genuinely excited, at least for the moment, at the prospect of foreign visitors.

In devising its eco-tourism plans, Socotra aims to follow in the footsteps of the Galapagos. Unlike the Galapagos, however, Socotra is significantly inhabited, and has been for some 2,000 years. More than 40,000 people now live there: many in Hadibu, the island’s main town, the rest scattered in small stone villages, working as fishermen and semi-nomadic Bedouin herders. Nature and culture are longstanding neighbors.

Late one afternoon Ahmed and I drove to a Bedouin village high on the plateau, where we would stay the night. Just before sundown, we arrived at a small cluster of low-ceilinged stone structures, home to an extended family and their herd of goats. After removing our shoes and entering, we were given the best pillows to recline on and served tea. Dinner followed: goat’s-milk yogurt, drunk from a communal bowl; a thin, freshly baked flatbread; and a large plate of rice cooked in goat’s milk, which we ate with the fingers of our right hands.

Ahmed led the conversation, which involved goats and water projects. It proceeded not in Arabic but in Socotri, a language that is unique to the island and related to some of the oldest of the Near East. Socotri describes 24 months in its calendar, each roughly 13 days long, including the Month of the Cow’s Breath, when heavy winds turn the sea to foam, and the Month of Crabs, when ghost crabs crowd the beaches by the thousands. By the light of a kerosene lamp I cajoled our host into teaching me several Socotri phrases. The most handy was the one for “I’m full.” No, thank you, no more goat’s milk, goat’s-milk yogurt or fricasseed goat, I’m full — kheapaak!

Blankets and mats were offered to sleep on. But mosquitoes, born from a nearby rainwater tank, had found me, so I stepped outside and set up my tent. The sky was thick with stars. Lying on the rocky ground, with the scent of frankincense fresh in memory, I felt as though I had stumbled into a chapter of the Old Testament. Well before dawn I woke to the sound of the family patriarch’s voice warbling a long, mournful prayer. He finished after a few minutes, and the night closed over the sound. I listened awhile longer to the holy darkness, then fell again to sleep.

The next morning we made for the forest of dragon’s blood trees. The dragon’s blood tree, Dracaena cinnabari, is Socotra’s flagship species. With a vertical trunk and arching canopy, the tree resembles a parasol that’s been blown inside out. When its trunk is cut, it oozes a red sap that gives rise to cinnabar, a resin with famous medicinal qualities. We had seen the trees scattered here and there on the plateau, but the highest concentration was in a nature reserve tucked high in the Haghier Mountains. We would drive to the base of the range and hike in.

On the drive up, Ahmed stopped to chat with a Bedouin man herding cattle with his young son. Through the open window, he and Ahmed gently pressed their foreheads and noses together, the customary greeting among men on Socotra. For the equivalent of $10, the man agreed to be our foot guide. He hopped into the back seat and left his son, who looked no older than 7, to tend the cattle.

The Haghiers are the original, uplifted core of the island, all worn and crumbling granite. Our path led upward invisibly from boulder to boulder, through low shrubs and aloes and amid the omnipresent droppings of goats and cattle. The United Nations conservation plan in 2000 divided Socotra into usage zones; more than 70 percent of the island is national park, off limits to development. Even here, though, livestock grazing is permitted, and well into the distance I could see stone walls marking tribal grazing ranges. I wondered aloud at what stage the conservation plan would begin to restrict the livestock.