Socotra-pped On An Island!

Socotra-pped On An Island!

 

Special thanks goes to our Young Pioneer Tours guide Pier-André Doyon for the blogpost title.

 

240km east of the coast of Somalia and 380km south of the Arabian Peninsula lies a 132 km x 49.7km island called Socotra: a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to countless endemic species and described as “the most alien-looking place on Earth.”

 

 

Due to its isolation, Socotra is famous for its unique eco-system found nowhere else on this planet, and most notably being home to the famous Dragon Blood and bottle trees.

 

 

However, due to the civil war and humanitarian crisis on the mainland still ongoing at the time of posting, logistical and ethical conundrums have stifled the once booming tourism to Socotra Island. From what used to be hundreds of tourists a week have now trickled down to mere teens.

Therefore we have struggled since 2012 in finding the right time to visit Socotra in a sustainable, ethical manner, without feeling we would overwhelm the islanders with our presence. Now that tourism has been slowly reemerging as of late, we have been steadfastly reassured that our presence as Western visitors will ensure a minimal logistical and environmental footprint given that we would be camping nearly every night.

Furthermore, we have been reminded that arriving in small groups we would both create a steady, sustainable positive impact in improving the welfare of the island, and encourage the Yemenese government to find a way to broker a ceasefire and open its doors back up to the world. One could only hope.

 

 

If I learned anything from travel, there is no right and wrong, black or white; so when we were given the option under these circumstances, I decided the only way to find out was to find out.

 

 

Currently the only legal way into Socotra for Western tourists is via a once-weekly, frequently delayed, and $1200 USD Yemenia Airways flight every Tuesday night/Wednesday morning at 2am, with a 1-2 hour stopover in Seiyun on the Yemen mainland before its scheduled landing in Socotra at 8:45am.

The return flight from Socotra is also the same once-weekly, frequently delayed Yemenia Airways flight that departs one hour later at 9:45am, with a 1-2 hour stopover in Seiyun, before finally returning to Cairo sometime that afternoon.

 

 

That means if you’re planning a visit to Socotra, prepare to be, for the lack of a better word, “marooned” on the island no less than one week increments as that single weekly flight is your only way in and out of this lost paradise. Furthermore, Socotra Island has been one of the least developed places I have ever spent an entire week in — we camped outside nearly every night, the only 2 hotels on the island have no working internet or laundry (and one of which is infested with bed bugs), and our guides (and one day, even us) had to hunt for our food.

Therefore if you plan a stay here and want to go budget, be prepared to completely detox from social media and the rest of the world (which I think was a good thing), and have your patience tested by everything running on island time (when anything is planned to take an “x” amount of time, they really mean multiply “x” by 2 and add another 20-40 minutes extra)

Big picture wise, I personally enjoyed my experience here as there are far worse places to be stuck in for a week, but I have to admit despite after an eye-opening 4 days, I was beginning to come down with mild island fever after we began to repeat many of our activities, which you’ll be able to discern between the lines through my blogposts below.

 

Day 1: NYC to Frankfurt to Cairo to Seiyun to Socotra Island —

Hadibo Do Be Dooo…

 

 

. . . So after a 6-week hiatus from nearly a year of monthly travels, it’s time to hit the road again. With 85,000 miles I booked the Lufthansa LH 401 flights on business class from JFK to FRA to CAI all for $60 USD. The experience began with the quick obligatory visit to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge at JFK. . . .

 

 

. . . click here to read more: Hadibo Do Be Dooo

Day 2: Arher Ahoy!

 

 

. . . We soon headed for Homhil National Park, famous for its Dragon’s blood trees which cannot be found anywhere else. . . .

 

 

. . . click here to read more: Arher Ahoy!

 

Day 3: Life On Mars In Hoq’s Cave

 

 

. . . This cave is one of the most important spots on the island and the closest you can get to visiting an alien planet . . .

 

 

. . . click here to read more: Life On Mars In Hoq’s Cave

 

Day 4: Where There May Be Dragons In Dixsam

 

 

. . . After setting off for what I felt was an unnecessary hike, we all soon realized we had made a poorly timed decision as we soon got rained on and a flash flood prevented us from crossing back over to our vehicles. Yikes! . . .

 

. . . click here to read more: Where There May Be Dragons In Dixsam

Day 5: Always Up to Nogud!

 

 

. . . From here we hiked through Fermahin – a forest and the highest concentration of Dragon’s Blood trees on the island (and I guess by transitive property, the rest of the world). . . .

 

 

. . . click here to read more: Always Up To Nogud!

 

Day 6: A Monsooner Always Pays Their Detwah!

 

 

. . . We hiked around the cliffs of the lagoon to pay a visit to Abdullah, a man living with his family (who was nowhere to be seen…) in a cave since a hurricane. . . .

 

 

. . . click here to read more: A Monsooner Always Pays Their Detwah!

 

Day 7: Rico Shuaab-ey

 

 

. . . The waves were rough, as we almost capsized more times I would have wanted to count. But we passed by huge rock formations, countless jellyfish and a few dolphins . . . 

 

 

. . . click here to read more: Rico Shuaab-ey!

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Habido, Yemen, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

Do You See Shells in Seychelles on the Sea Shore?

Do You See Shells in Seychelles on the Sea Shore?

 

After a few days adventuring in Madagascar and picking up an extra monsooner we met at our hostel along the way, we flew out to the Seychelles (at Evan’s insistence a few months ago) on a 2.5 hour 4pm flight from TNR to SEZ.

We landed at 7:35pm local time.

 

 

Once landing we proceeded through arrivals. No visa is required, but Seychellois (pronounced say-shel-wa) authorities want to ensure you are not planning on becoming a permanent resident. Make sure you have the following on you:

  • A passport valid on the date of entry to and exit from Seychelles
  • A return ticket
  • A copy of a hotel booking
  • Proof you have finances lasting at least 150 USD per day. Whether cash or credit cards, show them; you may even be asked for the credit balance you have
  • A statement of good health and a statement that you are not importing plants or infected animals (these papers would be provided by your flight attendants on your flight to the Seychelles)

If you happen to not have accommodation pre-booked they may force you to one at the airport before being allowed to leave.

 

 

Afterwards we were picked up for our accommodations at Sailfish Beach Villas and had a late dinner.

But what a view to wake up to!

 

 

We were picked up at 6:30am the next morning by Creole Travel Services and at a rate of around 200€ per person, we visited Seychelles most iconic landmarks in one day. 

By 7am we reached the passenger ferry leaving from Mahe Island for Praslin at 7:30am.

 

 

We arrived 1 hour later at 8:30am on the island of Praslin:

 

 

From there we were shuttled 15 minutes over to the Vallee de Mai, home of the legendary Coco de Mer.

 

 

The Coco de Mer is the world’s largest seed at 20 kg on average. It is known as the double lobed coconut that takes the form of a female pelvis and currently grows high in only one place in the world — here in these very ancient palms among a shaded glade once believed to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden (with the Coco de Mer as its forbidden fruit).

 

 

Wait til you see the male version nearby: Yikes! It is spoken of that actual sexual intercourse occurs at night when nobody is watching.

 

 

Here we were taken on a guided tour along meandering pathways beneath the canopy of centuries-old palm trees.

 

 

At 10:30am we briefly stopped by at Praslin Museum before heading on the 15 minute 11:45am ferry from Praslin Island to La Digue.

 

 

Do you know I still don’t have my driver’s license?

 

 

Don’t worry, Captain Kirk at the helm.

 

 

“Iceberg, right ahead!”

 

 

After an hour buffet lunch in town on La Digue, we stopped at L’Union Estate where we learned of old plantation life. At this point, however, half of the group — including yours truly — rudely began to meander off to the world famous beach of Anse Source D’Argent:

 

 

I mean, with this around the corner, how could you not wander off?

 

 

Of course an apology was followed afterwards with our worried guides for the mutiny and I offerred even to write the incident report for them.

I’m such an ethical rebel.

 

 

Then it was back to paradise and the planet’s most photographed strand.

 

 

After about 2 hours here, we returned about face back to our villas via the return ferries from La Digue to Praslin and from Praslin to Mahe Island. We were back home by 6:30pm.

We’re figuring out how to get food right now. There’s no such thing as delivery here.

Update: we settled on pizza.

 

 

- At time of posting in The Seychelles, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 82% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

The Tanzanian Safari Epic: Lake Manyara National Park

The Tanzanian Safari Epic: Lake Manyara National Park

 

 

For our 3rd day in Zanzibar, we took it easy and spent it on massages, lounging at the Park Hyatt, shopping, and essentially making the long wait before heading over for our 8:40pm Air Tanzania flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO). There we would rendezvous with Ann who would have arrived 2 hours earlier.

However, that would not be the case within the laws of travel: At the last minute Air Tanzania emailed me a change of departure time to a ridiculous 12:40am. With no other options, we thus continued to count the hours go by until a girl named Tamara checked into the hostel, sat down next to me on the floor while I was working on my laptop and playing some music, and asked me for advice on what to do in Zanzibar.

 

 

Within 15 minutes she would join our group for dinner at Lukmaan!

Love all these stories and the effortless friends we make when we travel.

 

 

We then took Tamara for a few drinks back at our favorite bar at the Park Hyatt until our 10:30pm cabs arrived. After saying our goodbyes, we headed over to ZNZ airport where we checked in and took advantage of Priority Pass access at the Dhow Lounge.

Although they usually close at 11pm, this time they kept it open late for us until boarding.

 

 

We finally boarded our at 1am slightly buzzed after raiding the lounge bar unopposed, playing Queen’s “We Are The Champions” in the background, thusly and thoroughly embarrassing ourselves as American tourists on the plane.

 

 

We landed at JRO airport an hour later at 2am.

 

 

There we reunited with Ann and were greeted by our pickup arranged by Easy Travel and Tours. We then drove onwards another hour to Arusha.

Once arriving at Karama Lodge at 3am, we quickly headed to bed.

 

 

The next morning we got up 5 hours later for a gorgeous morning view of the jungles behind Arusha.

 

 

After a quick breakfast we drove over into Arusha to meet our safari guides from Easy Travel.

 

 

We then drove 2 hours over to Lake Manyara National Park.

 

 

Once at the park we paid the entrance fee and had our boxed lunches inside:

 

 

After lunch we began our game drive; Lake Manyara National Park boasts varied ecosystems, breathtaking views and incredible ecological variety in a small area, rich in wildlife and amazing numbers of birds.

 

 

Lake Manyara’s game particularly includes Buffalos:

 

 

Wildebeests:

 

 

Giraffes:

 

 

Zebras:

 

 

Elephants:

 

 

Cranes:

 

 

Copulating hippos (yes, if you can’t tell, the hippo below is literally thrusting into his partner underwater right now):

 

 

Baboons:

 

 

Vultures:

 

 

Once we hit the early evening, we stopped for an hour shopping for Tanzanite stones before driving half an hour to Bougainvillea Lodge in Karatu town, just in time for dinner!

 

 

Today was just the appetizer though. Tomorrow we visit The Serengeti!

 

 

- At time of posting in Lake Manyara National Park, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 68% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

 

During The Terrorist Attack in Pul-e Mahmood Khan, Kabul, Afghanistan….

During The Terrorist Attack in Pul-e Mahmood Khan, Kabul, Afghanistan….


09:30AM

As I’m writing this a few explosions just occurred within our vicinity a few km away (it’s already on the news). Still hearing some gunfire in the distance where the plumes of smoke are.

 

 

We just went up to the rooftop to take a look:

 

 

What is more remarkable is how the hotel staff and even some of the people in our group remain so blasé right now as if we had heard a car accident just happened a few blocks away. We’ve been here a little over a week and the desensitization is very real, even though nothing close to this has happened during our 7-8 days here.

We even went out for lunch outside an hour later. As our guide informed us, most of the attacks occur between 7am-10am at the same places to target the morning commutes of VIPs and foreign workers. Tourists are never a target.

 

12:10pm

Another explosion has just occurred during the call to prayer at the OMAR Landmine museum, which we had visited just yesterday afternoon. It appears that the Taliban has stormed and occupied the TV station that situated on the same site as the OMAR Landmine museum, and has been fending off outside attempts to re-secure the building by Afghan military and police forces.

The Taliban has now claimed responsibility for today’s attacks on Kabul right now where a series of bomb blasts and sporadic gunfire are still occurring outside from where we’re staying.

 

02:00pm

I’m going to write this from the entire perspective of both my past week (which has been otherwise uneventful and very safe) and what has been going on the past few hours.

Because for security reasons I chose to post this on my last day in Kabul, and especially given that just as I finished writing this we heard a series of explosions and sporadic gunfire occurring a few kilometers away from our hotel, I’m writing this both from the perspective of my first and last day in Afghanistan after 7 days here. And although it took awhile, Afghanistan surprised me in ways I could not expect.

I expected to be throttled, shocked and awed, stumbling to the ground believing it would be a feverish experience from the moment I arrived. Instead pleasant surprise prevailed. Walking on the streets of Kabul on my first day felt immediately comfortable and familiar, and I never once experienced any sense of heightened tensions I had been warned to expect. At many moments I felt like I was back in Pakistan, gallivanting without a care other than the occasional tout and curious child. Like our initial concerns coming here, even military forces soon evaporated within the din of rush hour traffic.

Then I traveled to Mazar-e Sharif, Samangan, and Hairatan for 3 days — and despite the reported threat of the Taliban lurking around the corner — Afghanistan’s ocean of grandeur remained in wait, its beauty slowly unraveling like the beginning of an epic tale. Not until my return to Kabul for my final 2 days did this country finally reveal a tapestry of countless beautiful complexities.

Yes, before I go on, I must take a sense of responsibility and acknowledge the inherent dangers that could happen — even the one within a few minutes at the time of writing. However, I also cannot ignore the tens of thousands other minutes and moments where we felt completely safe, privileged to witness a place past the filter of Western media. Where a degree of the negativity bears truth, most of the positivity remains unrecognized. I know I still go to work hearing gunshots outside my ER back home.

To know Afghanistan is to know patience; the first impression can sometimes be the wrong impression. And sometimes the first impressions stick. Either way, you cannot judge a place or a person until you have experienced it for yourself. All I can conclude is that Afghanistan takes its time, lies in wait, rewarding only to those willing to look past the trauma porn of violence and war at its surface. It may take ages, demand repeat viewings, and should never be considered as n simply packaged, single-serving experience.

What I had witnessed this past week was resilience. Resilience in a country and people proud of its deep history — scars and all — while forging ahead towards an uncertain destiny.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kabul, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 16% | Wind Speed: 31km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

12 Strong: Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan

12 Strong: Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan

 

Our itinerary for this trip needs a little bit of background context.

On January 2018, the Taliban attacked the The Inter-continental Hotel in Kabul and killed at least 42 people. Among the dead included 5 pilots and 4 crew members of Kam Air, which was soon followed by over 50 foreign workers from that airline to then leave the country. Lacking enough pilots to fly out to places like Bamyan, Kam Air cancelled many of their routine daily flights, and to this day about a year and a half later, remains handicapped to where they can travel. Given this understandable situation and out of respect, we altered our original itinerary from Bamyan to Mazār-i-Sharīf/Mazār-e Sharīf/Mazar, the 4th largest city in Afghanistan.

So today we got up at 7am for our 9:45am flight out to Mazar, a significant historical city in both ancient and modern times.

After the September 11th attacks, USA began their invasion of Afghanistan to expel the Taliban. One of the first major battles took place here on November 9th, 2011, where the Afghan Northern Alliance, aided by USA’s Joint Special Operations teams, Green Berets, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), and Air Force Combat Controllers, liberated Mazar from the Taliban.

The battle later became famous in modern warfare lore for US Special Forces charging on horseback against a better equipped Taliban army, which was then profiled in and inspired Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book Horse Soldiers and Douwe Blumberg’s America’s Response Monument, the bronze statue in Liberty Park overlooking the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.

 

The book and statue’s story was later adapted for the recent Hollywood film 12 Strong starring Chris Helmsworth.

 

 

As we left for the airport, we began the long slog through the domestic terminal in Afghanistan. We went through a series of extensive security checks where ironically the women still get patted down more thoroughly than the men.

 

 

After about 20 minutes of going through security check after security check (which I won’t elaborate on to preserve the safety of future travelers), we checked into our 9:45am Kam Air flight to Mazar.

 

 

We waited about 10 minutes in the departure lounge before boarding. 

 

 

The flight over Afghanistan is well worth the window seat:

 

 

We landed about an hour later at 10:45am:

 

 

After being picked up by our convoy and driving 10 minutes to the hotel, we freshened up before heading out for a long day of walking.

 

 

Our first order of business was to savor authentic Afghani ice cream at Akram Sarwari, perfect for the 102ºF weather outside. Flavors came in cardamon, pistachio, cherry, mango, and traditional (that tasted somewhat like a creme caramel)

 

 

After 30 minutes fattening ourselves we headed out to explore the town.

 

 

Mazar was founded in the 12th century after a local mullah dreamt of a secret location where Ali bin Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and the 4th caliph of Islam, had been buried. Soon they built a shrine on the site (later rebuilt as the Blue Mosque) where the town of Mazar began to grow around it.

It soon became the capital of the region after the nearby town of Balkh was abandoned due to disease.

 

 

Regarded as one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan, it is one of the few places in Afghanistan where we were able to walk freely and safely in a rural environment.

 

 

In what seems to be the most unfortunate aspects of Afghani cities, however, we couldn’t help but note the rows of men squatting along a traffic divider — our guide would mention that they would spend entire days intoxicated on heroin-equivalent substances.

 

 

We also stopped by for a burqa shop fitting:

 

 

Eventually we reached the city center: The Blue Mosque:

 

 

Of course large crowds of curious locals gathered around us everywhere we stopped. We talked to them and our conversations never went beyond asking where we were from and what we were studying/doing for a job.

 

 

Behind the mosque lies the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, the reported burial site of the aforementioned Ali bin Talib and one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Islam:

 

 

A guard will inquire whether you are Muslim or not before deciding whether to let you inside to see the tomb of Ali bin Talib itself. If you’re not, the guard unfortunately made known to our guide that “if the town finds out, they will chop you in a hundred pieces.”

It seemed nobody really minded our presence however, so the risk is yours to take.

 

 

Behind the mosque is a holy slab of rock where it is purported that any bird that lands on it will become white. Take the legend for what you will:

 

 

After about an hour here, we returned back to our hotel and enjoyed a dinner at King Burger:

 

 

- At time of posting in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, it was 39 °C - Humidity: 11% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: burnt to a crisp

 

The UAE/Oman Road Trip: Khasab, Musandam Oman

The UAE/Oman Road Trip: Khasab, Musandam Oman

  

 

After 3 days road trippin’ around the UAE and visiting all 7 Emirates and Omani/Emirati counter-enclaves, it’s finally to the literal end of the road to Khasab: the main city in an exclave called Musandam Oman and can be considered Oman’s “Alaska”. It’s also called the “Norway of Arabia” due to its topography of desolate mountainscapes and fjord-like inlets.

If you’re planning to do the drive yourself, make sure you have a NOC (No Objection Certificate) that the car rental shop will give to you when you tell them you’re making a drive to Musandam Oman. Evan was able to thankfully arrange all this when he arrived into Dubai 2am the night before.

Giving Evan only 4 hours of sleep, we all woke up early at 7am to begin our day. Ambrose also happened to befriend a Persian girl named Samira last night after I asked him to do my laundry downstairs, so we all had breakfast together at the hotel before beginning our drive at 8:30am.

 

 

We first drove up an hour and half up past RAK city to the UAE/Musandam Oman border, reaching there at around 10am.

 

 

First you have to enter the offices there and formally exit the UAE, paying the 30 AED exit fee first along with your passports, NOC, and car registration papers.

 

 

They then give you a pink slip to show to the border guards as you drive into No Man’s Land.

 

 

Then when you reach the Oman border, you have to enter the offices there to get a visa on arrival stamp at the border for 5 Omani Rials. There’s an ATM inside in case you need it.

 

 

They also hand you another slip to show the border guards that you’re good to enter Oman.

 

 

Once you’re past this border, you need to quickly clear customs.

 

 

Then it’s another 45 minute drive down gorgeous curvy seaside cliffs to reach Khasab.

 

 

All in all, it took us about 3  hours in total to drive from Dubai to Khasab.

Once there we first stopped by the Central Sultan Qaboos Mosque, which holds 1900 people. We were not allowed inside.

 

 

Then we drove up to Alkmazrh Fort (or Khmazera Castle), located inside the city that still belongs to a local tribe; it currently is taken care by the tribes’ younger generation who remain proud of their ancestral possession. It was free to enter for us.

 

 

We then drove 3 minutes uptown and paid 0.50 Rials to check out the slightly larger Khasab Castle for 10 minutes: Built by the Portuguese in the 17th century, this castle once housed the Wali and his family, then prisoners, before being converted and restored into a regional museum.

 

 

The view from the top:

 

 

Then we drove up 2 minutes more uptown to scarf down a fantastic 10 Rial seafood lunch complete with fresh fish at Amjad Restaurant:

 

 

We then finished our drive at Khasab Dhow Port for the ferry-boats to Muscat. Here you can hop on a full day 6-8 hour or half-day 3 hour dhow boat ride (Or take one all the way to Muscat!).

On a side note, if you’re lucky you can find Iranian Smugglers here where everyday hundreds of small jet boats carrying supplies cross the Strait of Hormuz heading to Southern Iran. The former brings over goats and sheep for the UAE, and then carry back televisions, cigarettes, and other goods to avoid Iranian import duties. Because Khasab is a free trade port Oman tolerates all this.

They must avoid not only shipping traffic but also the Iranian Coast Guard who have no reservations of shooting them on sight.

 

 

Since smuggling wasn’t on our minds, we were able to arrange a 3 hour boat ride at 1pm at the last minute for 100 AED (you can bargain it down) per person thanks to a contact provided by Sean the night before.

 

 

Dolphins chased down our dhow about 20 minutes into our ride!

 

 

About an hour in, they’ll take you to a freshwater area deep in the Strait of Hormuz where you can jump in for a swim and snorkel off the coast of Oman (or Iran, depending on how you look at it). A US drone was just shot down here 3 days ago, but we saw nothing of it: No warships, no media, no helicopters, and no military activity. Just a bunch of American tourists going for a dive.

 

 

Then it was simple relaxation for the rest of the journey where you can just take in all the views as they serve you unlimited fruit, tea, water and coffee onboard.

 

 

Just lounge away:

 

 

After our dhow cruise docked back in Khasab at 4:30pm, we began our drive back to the UAE:

 

 

Once returning to Dubai by 7:30pm, we freshened up at our hotel and rendezvous’ed with Sean, his girlfriend Chelsea (who also has been living in the UAE for the past 9 years), as well as inviting Samira out for a final night out together by the Dubai Fountain and facing the Burj al Khalifa.

 

 

After a wonderful meal complete with shisha and drinks, we finally said our goodbyes, with Wendy running to catch her 1am flight back home, and Sean and Chelsea having to go to sleep early for their classes tomorrow morning.

The 5 of us left then headed to Dubai Mall for the obligatory visit to the world’s largest fish tank and one of the largest aquariums in the world:

 

Then Samira and the gang had one more round of drinks and shisha at Garage Café before we all finally turned in at 1am. In a few hours: Kabul, Afghanistan!

 

- At time of posting in Khasab, it was 40 °C - Humidity: 28% | Wind Speed: 15km/hr | Cloud Cover: so so hot