The New York Times T Style Magazine: Travel, March 25, 2007
The road to the forest of frankincense trees, on the Yemeni island of Socotra, is a rough one. From the passenger seat of a battered Toyota Land Cruiser, it looked like pure rock pile, on and on, up, down, over. Ahmed Said, my driver and guide, wrestled the wheel like a man engaged, surely and calmly, in a struggle to the death. When at last, after 90 minutes, he stopped and got out, we had traveled perhaps no more than five miles.
We stood on a rise overlooking a riverbed rushing with water. The ground underfoot was a rubble of granite boulders and chunks of sharp limestone karst. Small trees — short and gnarled, resembling mesquite — surrounded us. Ahmed approached one and pointed to an amber drop of sap oozing from its trunk: the essence of frankincense. Until that moment I’d had no clear idea what exactly frankincense was; nor that it derives from the sap of a tree; nor that, as Ahmed explained, Socotra is home to nine species of the tree, all unique to the island. I caught the drop of sap on my finger and inhaled a sharp, sweet fragrance; then I put it to my tongue. The torture of the drive was forgotten, and for the briefest moment, under the hot Yemeni sun, I tasted Christmas.
Situated 250 miles off the coast of Yemen, Socotra is the largest member of an archipelago of the same name, a four-island ellipsis that trails off the Horn of Africa into the Gulf of Aden. A mix of ancient granite massifs, limestone cliffs and red sandstone plateaus, the island brings to mind the tablelands of Arizona, if Arizona were no bigger than New York’s Long Island and surrounded by a sparkling turquoise sea.
Some 250 million years or more ago, when all the planet’s major landmasses were joined and most major life-forms were just a gleam in some evolutionary eye, Socotra already stood as an island apart. Ever since, it has been gathering birds, seeds and insects off the winds and cultivating one of the world’s most unusual collections of organisms. In addition to frankincense, Socotra is home to myrrh trees and several rare birds. Its marine life is a unique hybrid of species from the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. In the 1990s, a team of United Nations biologists conducted a survey of the archipelago’s flora and fauna. They counted nearly 700 endemic species, found nowhere else on earth; only Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands have more impressive numbers.
Lately Socotra has begun to attract a new and entirely foreign species — tourists. A modest airport went up in 1999. (Before then, the island could be reached only by cargo ship; from May to September, when monsoon winds whip up the sea, it could be cut off entirely.) That year, 140 travelers visited. The annual figure now exceeds 2,500: a paltry number compared with, say, the Galapagos, but on an island with only four hotels, two gas stations and a handful of flush toilets, it’s a veritable flood.
They — I should say “we” — constitute an experiment. Encouraged by a United Nations development plan, Socotra has opted to avoid mass tourism: no beachfront resorts; instead, small, locally owned hotels and beachfront campsites. The prize is that rarest of tourists, eco-tourists: those who know the little known and reach the hard to reach, who will come eager to see the Socotra warbler, the loggerhead turtle, the dragon’s blood tree — anything, please, but their own reflection.
Riding with Ahmed, it was immediately evident that, though the island is small in size, it cannot possibly be seen without a hired driver and guide, for the simple reason that there are few proper roads, fewer road signs and no road maps.
The first paved roads were built by the Yemeni government only two years ago: wide, open scabs on the landscape that stretch across the island yet see virtually no traffic. The new roads, it turned out, were a sore spot with Ahmed and the United Nations Socotra Archipelago Conservation and Development Programme. “The experience is so different if you spend 45 minutes on a road versus three or four hours,” Paul Scholte, the program’s technical adviser in Sana, Yemen’s capital, said to me. “The whole perception of the island changes due to the road.” Then there was the matter of placement. Only at the last minute did the S.C.D.P. manage to convince the government not to send the road through a stretch of coastline designated as a nature preserve. It’s fair to say that Socotra’s future may be read in the lines of its roads: how many, how wide, where they lead and who is encouraged to travel on them.
Ahmed took me to the beach that would have been paved over: shimmering blue water, powdery white sand and not a soul in sight. A ghost crab, pure white, with just its pin-stalk eyes peeking above the water like twin periscopes, drifted by on a current in the shallows. I watched it watch me and then bury itself in the sandy floor.
According to Scholte, roughly half of Socotra’s tourists are Italians, who seem mainly interested in the beaches: “Italians go because it’s new, it’s cheap, but not because it’s special.” The French and Germans, in contrast, go for special: they come to hike, visit the island’s nature preserves, maybe rent camels and spend several days trekking as a group across the Haghier mountain range at the center of the island.
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.
“We have to be careful with the local communities,” Ahmed said. “We can’t just say, ‘Stop, stop, stop.’ They need to see a benefit first.” Our $10 guide, I understood, was one step in the education process.
After two hours we reached the peaks, a couple thousand feet up. I could see the coast below and the outline of Hadibu pressed against it. Ahmed handed me his binoculars and pointed a few yards away to a bird foraging on the ground: the Socotra bunting, with a rosy breast and black-and-white striped head. It is among the rarest of the island’s endemic species and is threatened by predation from feral, non-native cats. Birders come from around the world to catch sight of it. And here, Ahmed said, I’d seen it with no effort at all! I pictured men and women traveling thousands of miles to tick names off a life list and suddenly wasn’t sure whether it was absurd to keep such a list or shameful that I did not.
The forest of dragon’s blood trees, when we at last reached it, did not much resemble a forest, at least not the dense, dark sort associated with giant reptiles of myth. It was open and sparse, as though a light rain of broken umbrellas had fallen on the hillside. Recent years have seen a troubling decline in the tree’s numbers. Although many older examples are present on the island (they can grow for 300 years or more), the younger generation is all but absent, with saplings found growing only on cliff sides and in the most inaccessible highlands. The entire species may well be headed for extinction.
Scientists are unsure why. Grazing could be one cause; as development projects have brought a more steady supply of water to Bedouin villages, the herds of livestock have grown larger and more stable. A more important factor may be climate change: the island has seen a reduction in cloud and mist cover, which may affect the ability of dragon’s blood seeds to germinate.
After a lunch of wild oranges, we began the long hike out. I was tired and more than a little sun-dazed. My gaze slipped from the vista and became entranced by the rise and fall of the guide’s feet in front of me; I marveled at the upright, unlabored grace with which he moved, and the fact that he was barefoot. My thoughts coalesced around the fuzzy notion that all the dramatic landscapes I’d ever seen — Socotra, the Galapagos, Cape Breton, Yosemite Valley — in fact were one and the same and all visible here before my eyes. Then I would focus again on the guide’s bare feet and remember that I was not everywhere in the world but in fact somewhere like nowhere else. I invented a quiet little song:
I’m in Yemen, I’m in Yemen,
I see many men in Yemen.
I drifted along to the rhythm of this internal chant and soon expanded it into an elaborate mantra involving anemones, anonymity, metonymy and my anomie. When Ahmed suddenly addressed me in English, I was taken by surprise.
“Why do people want to travel to Socotra?”
I was stumped. His question was pragmatic, I’m sure, but in my fugue state it sounded existential. Why do people travel? What are tourists, and what do they — we — hope to take home? Pleasure in seeing something new, of course, but also pride in being among the privileged few to see it, and the self-assurance (however delusional) that our presence has not yet altered the very thing we’ve come to experience. How long can that spell go unbroken? Already, Paul Scholte told me, Socotra’s few tourists have one consistent complaint: they see too many tourists.
Even more than the flora and fauna, it seemed to me, the most fragile aspect of Socotra is its way of life. Here are a people whose own idea of travel mostly entails the pursuit of goats — a people, in effect, whose ancestors had ended their travels here centuries ago, then ventured no farther. The most endangered way of life nowadays is the one that goes, if not nowhere, then somewhere very slowly, and a traveler must go to the ends of the earth to see it.
I was tempted to ask our guide, if he could travel, what in the world he would want to see. But I refrained; the question would have meant nothing to him. When at last we reached our truck, I offered him a piece of the snack bar I’d been saving to celebrate. He picked at it and waved his hand, the international sign for “Thanks, but no thanks.” Kheapaak.