Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Many Yemeni Men

Picking up from the last post with a semi-false subject line that I couldn't resist using because it's fun to say- try it: many Yemeni men! There really weren't that many, but they- our drivers and guides and cooks, all affiliated with El Hamed Tourism- were so charming, quick to smile and dance and they totally rocked their man-skirts! In their capable hands, we made our way down off the plateau- with a stop at a meteorite crater described so picturesquely as the "falling star landing place"- toward the second largest "city" on the island, Qulansiya. There we traded our SUVs for painted wooden boats and headed up the coast.

Milosha's pic
Again, the water was breathtakingly beautiful, it seemed to emanate light, so much so that the white undersides of gulls' wings reflected an electric blue.

The boats slowed and suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by easily a hundred spinner dolphins, leaping and flipping, playing and diving all around us. A group of 3 or 5 or 6 or so would swim in formation, under the boat only to surface in tandem, like they were dancing all around us. They'd leap in 2s, one would go and shortly after another from the same subgroup- maybe it was a competition or a case of inspiration. It was remarkable. 

After a long, wonderful day on and near the water, we went to Hadibo, the largest "city" and the site of our last night's lodging. Most of the group stayed in Socotra's largest hotel! I was tickled by the chosen superlative. Not the "best" or "best value" or anything like that, simply the largest. There are rumored to be only 2 other hotels on the island to give them competition for the title. There would be small reminders like this throughout our stay of just how remote this island is. One of the most interesting things to me is the fact that there's a Socotri language that is most closely linked to a pre-Islamic Arabic language that doesn't have much in common with modern Arabic.

Restaurants are in short supply as well but no matter. Our cooks set us up a long table on the beach after dark. We enjoyed a last meal under the stars and then a local women's band performed a few numbers for the group. Some groups trickled back to the hotel, others stayed for a farewell shisha and campfire.

The last morning we visited a nursery where they are growing baby versions of many of the endemic trees and plants. Young Dragon's Blood trees look remarkably like an ordinary desert yucca plant. It can take a hundred years or so to grow the fantastical umbrella trees like the ones we saw on the plateau! Baby Bottle trees, on the other hand, are unmistakably related to their older versions.

A very last stop before heading to the airport: a few shops in Hadibo. Some of the sarong style wraps worn by the Socotri men featured beautiful patterns and high quality cloth, several of us admired the fancy versions in the shop but settled on a simpler, everyday style to use at home as a sarong or throw or table cover or whatever. 

After this last stop, it was back to the airport for our goodbyes and thank yous (something like "illa bukalla" in Socotri) to our crew and their beautiful and unforgettable home!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dr. Seuss in the blue lagoon... my weekend in Yemen

Around the time I moved to the UAE I saw some list making the rounds on FaceBook: 35 places to see before you die, or the 29 most amazing places, or something like that. In the list was a Yemeni island called Socotra and especially the Dragon's Blood trees, the specific variety that grows there grows no where else on earth. Well, Yemen is in the neighborhood but the travel logistics sounded a little daunting and, I mean, Yemen. Was it OK to travel to Yemen?

Happily, a group I'd heard good things about, Escape Travels, announced a trip!- a long weekend just before ZU's spring break- perfect. And, there would be camping involved! I have been missing the whole sleeping outside thing quite a bit. I was intentionally vague when describing the trip to mom ahead of time, I think I managed to avoid entirely mentioning it was in Yemen or that we'd be flying a Yemeni airline and making a mainland stop. As hoped, all of that went smoothly, the most daunting part being staying up late in order to get to the Sharjah airport for a 4AM departure! In the pouring rain. An aside, I was surprised to discover a well stocked duty free at the airport in the dry emirate of Sharjah and they had the smartest things (which I of course availed myself of): wine in plastic bottles!

Upon arrival at the Socotra airport we cleared customs- only 4 flights per week land on the island, makes me wonder what the immigration officials there do the rest of the time. We split up into about 10 SUVs and headed directly for Delisha Beach. The waters surrounding the island are turquoises aquamarine, azure and indigo... so remarkably beautiful that words fail. Shells and brainy textured hunks of coral are scattered on the fine white sand. Quirky
Egyptian vultures with punk rock yellow mohawk hairdos started stalking us before that first lunch, they, along with goats, were pretty constant companions. One goat is rumored to have eaten a visitor's passport. We snorkeled and floated and napped in the shade until it was time to head for our first night's campsite at Arher Beach along a freshwater stream and next to a tall snowy white dune. For several months of the year, Socotra is blasted by near constant 120 kph winds that blow the beaches right up the mountainside making for dramatic slopes. We had a taste of the wind the first night and most people were desperate for sleep after the 4AM flight ordeal so after the sun went down and a bit of ooohing and aaahing over the magnificent starry night, many people, me included, hit the tents.

In the morning we hiked up a steep trail at Homhil. Most of the group hit a freshwater rock pool at the top, some of us limped back down before the summit for a quick run to the beach. We saw some of our first Bottle trees and Dragon's Blood trees on the hike but far from our last.

Attentive FaceBook or blog followers may notice that the Bottle trees look a little familiar. They are a variety of the Desert Rose which is the same plant I used for my first Dubai Christmas tree.
The ones on the island grow especially bulbous bottoms making them look exactly like something dreamed up by Dr. Seuss. My Christmas plant wasn't so Seuss-y but the blossoms that opened up after the holiday were exactly the same.

We made our way up to the Dicksam Plateau on winding roads, both paved and dirt, making a stop at one of the only 2 gas stations on the island. The plateau is where the Dragon's Blood trees grow and where we made camp the second night. Four of our goat friends joined us for dinner that night, as the main course and while our chefs were doing the prep, we headed down into a wadi (canyon) to a green rock pool with a natural slide. wheee!

Camping night two among the Dragon's Blood trees (called that because of their bright red sap which is harvested, dried and used for medicines and make up) included a campfire and marshmallows. (After the fresh goat which was quite tasty.) So much fun to share a first experience roasting a marshmallow with people from all over the world. My tent-mate is Bulgarian, one fellow
rider in Ali's party SUV (we sang and danced along to pop songs top volume driving up and down the mountain roads- including repeated renditions of the odd 90s "Barbie Song" by one hit Norwegian wonder, Aqua- not what you expect on a remote middle eastern island!) is Hungarian, I shared a taxi to the airport with a Spaniard and an Indian but on the ride home swapped out one for an Aussie. I count at least 13 different nationalities in our group. A lovely mess of accents.

Day three had us coming down off the plateau, back to the blue blue waters of the Indian Ocean but I think I'll cover that in a part 2 post so as to be able to get this one out in a timely fashion! More pictures first!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

clean sheets

So what did I do this weekend? Oh, just took a little dip in the Persian gulf. It's so much prettier than
I expect, each time I visit Dubai beaches. I guess the name Persian Gulf conjures up images of oil and war and then instead there's the elegant Burj al Arab, fine soft sand, and turquoise waters. It still doesn't seem entirely real to me that I live here.

Milosha & Krassa in Safa Park
I also went to Safa Park with a few friends from last week's trip to Socotra Island (a blog post about that amazing adventure is in the works too) and enjoyed seeing the place so well used- families, sporty groups (cricket players- now there's a sport I know absolutely nothing about!), birthday parties... it's hard to think I'm living in a desert while in the park. And I went to a ladies night at a Mexican/ shisha joint in the Dubai Marina area which was my first foray into that part of town- but not my last. It feels a little like hanging out in Barbie's world, things are a little luxe and plastic, but so pretty. We drank free margaritas, ate half price duck quesadillas, smoked an apple hookah and watched yachts cruise past as the sun set.

Oh and I did laundry- far less exciting but perhaps still worth a comment. In so many ways the UAE seems to have taken their development cues from the US more than say, Europe. I think it's a product of the era in which they were growing so rapidly- the 70s, 80s and into the 90s- the US was at the height of its culture exportation days- pre Bollywood, post Beatles. We were creating MTV and cable television, car phones bigger and heavier than bricks and Nike shoes. We were exporting consumerism- maybe something that resonated with the Bedouin trading past of the region? Now that oh-so-American phenomena of the mall is done here in spades. The UAE has out-mall-ed the USA. Car culture is king, luxury rides, oversized SUVs, muscle cars... again, it's more American than America in some ways. But not when it comes to appliances for some reason. Dishwashers are stunningly inefficient, running several hours even in the "Eco" setting. And dryers... I hear that people in villas or big compound houses- and that probably includes most Emiratis- have dryers more akin to those I'm familiar with but just about every expat I know in the high rises has this oh so European tiny
washer/dryer combo that doesn't actually dry. It just spins wrinkles into everything. I have a few contraptions for hanging all my damp wrinkly clothes but I was stumped on how to deal with my sheets- nothing big enough to hang them from/ on- so I caved and just sent them out to a laundry. Free pick up and delivery. Talk about your first world problems, have to send the sheets washing out because I've nowhere to hang dry it and my "dryer" won't fluff and dry.
clean sheets (at least i put them on the bed myself!)