Apr/May 2014 Travel

Sweet Potatoes and Sugary Tea for Breakfast

by Matt Savage

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

In March of 2013 I traveled with my wife and her friend to Socotra, a small island 200 or so miles south of mainland Yemen. We met our guide at the airport, packed into a Toyota Land Cruiser, and drove for ten days across the most alien countryside we'd ever seen. Sometimes, other than the occasional camel or civet, there was little to remind us we hadn't left our native solar system or traveled millions of years back in time.

Everything felt unique and frail. The island's language had never been written down and was under increasing pressure as Arabic took hold. Its culture was being infused with conservative Islamic traditions introduced by Yemen following the country's unification in 1990. Its flora and fauna had evolved in isolation, and hundreds of species could be found nowhere else on Earth.

Tourists like us brought economic opportunities and environmental hazards. We were to tread lightly.

My wife's friend had come to record and catalog traditional Socotri music. My wife, a photographer, had accompanied him to document the process. I, having no real aim or purpose, mostly tagged along, absorbing what I could and occasionally scribbling notes into a small black notebook.

Over time, the subject of these scribblings turned more and more frequently to our guide, Ismael—a compact, gentle fellow fond of jokes and deeply committed to preserving the island's identity.

As he took us from village to village, camped with us in the cool evenings, and huddled with us around dishes of rice and goat and fish, he told stories that filled our days with a hazy mixture of history, mythology, and biography.

He and his stories framed our every experience, and through him the island opened up to us. Wherever we went, he was greeted with broad smiles and open arms. And as his guests, we were invited into the homes of many kind, generous strangers.

We danced with them, broke bread with them, and thumped on their sheepskin drums. We recorded musicians in seaside villages and played with children in the desert. We were celebrities and curiosities, awkward fumbling foreigners, hopelessly out of place but made to feel perfectly at ease.

We were happy little astronauts. And Socotra was our moonscape.


The Sparrow Trap

Once, the little sultan swept us from the midday heat to the cool mouth of a cave near the sea.

In dark recesses we found goat bones and sheep skins, a whip scorpion nestled in a shallow nook, a camel skull.

We laid our mattresses down to lounge and eat dates and chat in the shade. All around us sparrows flickered and water dripped from stalactites high overhead.

"When I was a boy, I would catch sparrows and eat them," the little sultan reminisced.

And he fashioned a trap with a box, a length of string and a small piece of wood he had whittled with a pocketknife. For bait, he scattered handfuls of rice on the cave floor.

While we waited, he lit a cigarette.


The Singing Imam

Once, as the sun dipped low and the stars lit up one by one over the water, the little sultan sat with us in a circle around the singing imam.

With no mosque walls to echo within or speakers to amplify through, the imam's tenor sounded small against the ocean behind it, high and tight. We pressed the microphone in close.

When the performance had ended, we offered him our headphones, which he gently placed over his ears. And there, with us watching and the tide slowly going out, he heard the sound of his voice for the very first time.

When he addressed us at last, the little sultan translated.

"Praise Allah."


A Sour Fruit

Once, the little sultan was startled by a falling date.

It landed on our mattress as we took lunch in the shade of a palm grove, sending a small gray lizard that had come to investigate us zipping back into the scrub.

The date was light orange and perfectly smooth, different from the shriveled brown variety we had been sharing every day.

"It is unripe," the little sultan explained. "And very delicious."

We sampled it to be sure.

It was sweet at first, then chalky—with a sour aftertaste that made us squint and pucker. But its novelty endeared us. And all through our remaining days together, we would mark our route with the seeds of orange dates.

They are probably still there today, barely noticeable among the rocks and coral stone and goat skulls. Proof of our great adventure.


The Rainbow in the Oil

Once, the little sultan fell deeply, madly in love.

But time and again, the object of his love refused him. So his feelings for her grew.

After the third refusal, the little sultan's sister pleaded with him to abandon his romantic quest. "Your persistence will bring shame upon the family!" she exclaimed.

But he would not be swayed.

If I am to win Zinah's heart, I must first speak with her, he thought. But having thwarted me three times, she is unlikely to grant me an audience.

He needed a plan, and so he quickly devised one.

He drove many miles to Zinah's house and parked his car on the side of the road. Then he poured motor oil under the car and along the crumbling tarmac.

When she came upon him later that day, the sly little sultan explained that his car had leaked all its oil, that he must wait for the next passing motorist to replenish his supply and continue on his way.

As there were not many motorists on Socotra, this was sure to take some time.

"While we wait, let us talk," he suggested.

"But, why?" she asked, neither pleased to see him nor amused by his forwardness.

"Because I love you," he answered, a dimpled smile reaching from ear to ear.

And though she did not love him back, though she did not so much as like him back, they continued to talk.

And the cars continued to pass.

And not so many months later, they were married.


A Symphony At Night

Once, the little sultan brought us down the side of a tremendous ravine along a steep, craggy road to Wadi Dirhor.

At night, we ate goat by a big fire and saw more stars than we had ever seen. From time to time, we spied satellites passing high above the Earth.

Then we retired to our tents, and the sounds of the valley came to us one by one in syncopated layers. The clopping of goat hooves against the rocks, the tumbling stones, the heavy flapping of vulture wings, the careful footsteps of men wandering the trails, the somber bleating of baby sheep, the croaking of insects, the whistling of distant birds, the wind easing through the palm fronds, the dates trickling down from the trees, the rhythm of our breathing as we stirred.


A Ghostly Gauntlet

Once, long after the sun had gone down, the little sultan deposited us on a beach and drove ahead to set up camp.

As his taillights shrank and darkness swooped in, we made our way to the waterline, the sand cool between our toes.

And turning our headlamps on we saw them, white and spidery, a plague's portion of ghost crabs darting up and down the shore. They scuttled in and out of their sand pyramids, pecking feverishly at dead fish and occasionally brushing against our feet.

We spied a faint light in the distance. Rattled but undeterred, we pressed on toward it.


The Spider's House

Once, the little sultan brought us into the highlands along a road that zigged and zagged up the plateau into Firmihin.

There, perched like a giant mushroom, dark against the bright sun behind it, was our very first dragon's blood tree—spiny, proud and prehistoric. It was the only one of its kind for miles and miles, isolated for hundreds of years, standing with a watchful eye on the ocean far below.

We approached with all due awe and admiration, and the little sultan quickly began inspecting the gnarled trunk for spider houses, little gray bungalows almost imperceptible against the bark.

One house, two houses, three houses, four—each empty, their trap doors ajar and flapping in the breeze.

Finally, a fifth house, its door shut tight.

"There is a spider inside," the little sultan assured us. "But let us not disturb him."

And we left the tree and headed for the forest.


A Curious Color

Once, when he was six years old, the little sultan set his eyes on an inexplicable thing.

Two foreigners had arrived in his village, white from head to toe.

They were French, and stepping from their car they struck ground like bolts of lightning, great shockwaves rippling out from each point of impact. The local children felt it in the bones of their feet.

When the coast was clear, the boys gathered, daring one another to touch the car that had dropped the pale visitors at their doorstep. Whoever kept his hands on it the longest would win.

So one by one they cautiously approached. And checking over their shoulders one two three four times, quickly whacked at a door or tire and ran screaming for their lives.

When it was his turn, the little sultan entered the arena. All eyes were upon him, following as he made his steady advance, widening in disbelief as he made contact and kept his hands glued firmly to the prize.

His heart filled up, his back straightened, and his chest bulged. And as he returned their gazes, his smile beamed and teased.


The Coffee Merchant

Once, the little sultan brought us to Di Hamri, where we snorkeled and swam and rested in the shade of thatched huts freckling the beach. It was there we met the coffee merchant.

He was handsome and talkative, gliding effortlessly from English to Arabic and back again, dividing his gaze between the sea and us. He kindly poured a rare and coveted coffee of his own making—a dark, nourishing liquid with scrumptious grounds settled at the bottom.

He harvested the beans only once a year. They were grown in Japan from 17 trees, each hundreds of years old, and fetched thousands of dollars per kilo.

A prosperous man, he had come from Yemen with no particular plan or itinerary, but carried in his mind a vision of Socotra's future. He sought to grow this vision—cabana by cabana—into a sprawling resort town for wealthy adventurers seeking an out-of-the-way corner of the world in which to snorkel and swim and rest.

It would bring the Socotri people wealth they desperately needed. But, we thought, it would cost them something, too.


A Witch At Dinner

Once, having driven through the long afternoon, the little sultan brought us at last to the village of Qabhaten.

The children fled as we approached, mistaking us for doctors come to dispense painful inoculations—the only other white visitors they had ever seen. Their eyes were wild, and their clothes cast vibrant greens and purples against the washed out monochrome of the hillside.

Later, a young goat was slaughtered for our supper, its bones used for broth and its heart offered in little pieces to the men in our party. The woman among us was forbidden to share in this delicacy, as it was believed to turn her into a witch.

An unadventurous eater, she was relieved that this was so.


A General In Our Midst

Once, the little sultan introduced us to a Yemeni army general stationed at a local outpost.

A kind and hospitable man, the general invited us to take lunch with him in the shade. Chicken, rice, bread and potato, all exquisite and eaten by hand. And afterwards, thick slices of papaya, the juice getting everywhere.

We asked many questions and learned many things.

He had led tanks into battle. He would retire in four years and tend to a farm. He had two Yemeni wives living in adjacent houses—and was hoping to take a third wife here in Socotra.

Soon a red plastic bag was placed at the general's feet. From it he produced many leaves of the drug called khat. And placing them one at a time between his teeth and the side of his mouth, he formed a great wad to be gently chewed over the coming hours.

Once it took hold, the drug would last him through the night, filling him with hallucinations and lust. When we had gone, he would travel up to the mountains or down to the sea to cool off and sleep.

We passed another hour in pleasant conversation, the general's teeth turning green and the bulge in his cheek slowly broadening. And all the while soldiers with large automatic weapons came and went. And fat wasps hovered in the corner, occasionally disappearing against the dark wood.


The Sudden Graveyard

Once, the little sultan was an hour late to breakfast.

We waited by the restaurant patio, drinking sweet tea and watching the goats crane their necks and sneak scraps off nearby tables.

Then we got up to photograph three vultures congregating on a wall, softly rattling the stones under our feet.

It was not until we returned to our seats that we noticed the grisly parts and pieces scattered about the patio floor—chicken bones, desiccated fish heads, little black goat legs severed at the knee—all bleaching in the sun, which even at this early hour was pounding mercilessly down on us.


The Sun Worshippers

Once, the little sultan showed us crude shapes etched into the ground.

A horse, a camel, footprints, an alphabet. Wherever we stepped, hieroglyphs appeared underfoot.

"They are ancient, thousands of years old," the little sultan said. "They are the work of sun worshippers."

Our shadows passed over one by one, cooling the hieroglyphs for an instant before leaving them to the searing midday heat.


A Loving and Dangerous Thing

Once, when he was just a little baby, the little sultan's mother did a loving and dangerous thing.

Malaria had come to the island, and at night it swept through the villages on the backs of thirsty mosquitos, taking many men, women, and children with it.

To protect him, the little sultan's mother wrapped him in netting.

But he was a fussy sleeper. And time and again his tossing and turning ripped the netting away. No matter how many times she re-covered him, he found a way to wriggle free and foil her efforts.

Finally, she rolled up her sleeves and rolled up her robes. And her brown skin was lit by the moon.

And all through the night, the mosquitos left the little sultan alone.


A Moment Alone

Once, at the end of a very long day, the little sultan delivered us to a deserted beach.

We set our tents by headlamp light beside a large puffer fish skeleton, away from where the ghost crabs made pyramids in the sand.

Then, wandering far off into the darkness, each of us taking a separate path, we moved our bowels under the stars like wild animals.

And the sound of the ocean waves filled us with joy.


A Dance With Birds

Once, the little sultan stopped the car and let us out onto the mudflats, where we slowly encroached on a small band of flamingoes.

The closer we got, the more wary they became, the further they tiptoed away.

And so a certain distance lingered between us, sometimes growing a little, sometimes contracting a little—but always there.


An Avian Mystery

Once, the little sultan was called upon to solve a great mystery.

A fisherman sailing close to the nearby island of Darsah—deserted but for its birds and rats—had spotted dozens of dead gulls and cormorants on the shore.

He alerted Socotra's environmental agency, which promptly sent a representative to investigate.

When he arrived on Darsah, the little sultan found the beach just as it had been described, and his heart sank at the sight of it.

Perhaps they have eaten something toxic, he thought. So using his pocketknife, he slit the nearest bird's belly to see if he could find a clue hidden inside.

He could not.


The Great Sea Cucumber Harvest

Once, the little sultan walked with us among fishermen working in camps along the beach at night.

There, they washed and disemboweled scores of sea cucumbers before boiling them in great cauldrons and drying them upon mats. Steam rose from the pots and stringy white intestines crisscrossed the sand.

They were a highly prized delicacy, and would be sold to wealthy businessmen laboring under the belief that consuming them would enhance virility.

We quietly looked over the heaps. There are so many, we thought.

"By law, they can only be caught when the fishermen hold their breath and dive to the ocean bottom," the little sultan explained. "Otherwise, they would all be caught and sold and gone."

We surveyed the surface of the water and imagined the day's survivors oozing along in the dark far beneath it, oblivious to their good fortune.


The Eldest Daughter

Once, the little sultan told us of Yemeni Muslims who came to Socotra to guide its women to paradise.

They visited the mosques, conferred with the imams, and gave speeches to rapt congregations. Gardens of perpetual bliss awaited, they promised, but the way would not be easy. And only with covered faces and hushed voices could women set foot upon the path.

The women listened, and the warnings took root in their hearts. And soon word spread across the island, followed swiftly by dark veils and whispering.

Many years later, the little sultan turned to his eldest daughter, who had arrived at the dinner table shrouded in a hijab.

"I have raised you to be free," he said. "Wear only the clothes you wish to wear."

"I wish to wear these," she replied. "They will laugh if I don't."


The Doors of Hadibo

Once, walking with us through the dusty Hadibo streets, the little sultan disappeared into a small bakery.

While he negotiated the price of our lunch with a man cooking flatbreads on the sides of a fiery kiln, we wandered the thoroughfare, careful to avoid the paths of zigzagging cars.

There were hawkers crowded in small entryways, women in dark veils selling blood-red pottery on the road, vultures slinking along the rooftops, goats clacking by in twos and threes, men with distended cheeks betraying thick wads of khat, the steady buzz of generators, suspicious stares, wafting smells of grilling meat, flies gathering on fruit stands, broken fish bones, scattered heaps of trash and passers-by carrying on loud conversations in languages we could not hope to penetrate.

Everywhere were desert yellows and browns, but for the doors. Each had a unique design, and bore a distinct color made all the more brilliant by the muted tones surrounding it.

We were overwhelmed with affection for them and wondered where they led.


The Fisherman's Knife

Once, the little sultan sat with us in a small boat stopped briefly in the shallows under tall, tall cliffs.

The fisherman at the motor pointed out a pod of dolphin, and we heard the water lapping quietly against the vessel's side.

He pulled a snorkel and a mask from the hollow of the boat. Then, chirping a few words in Socotri, he dove gracefully over the edge.

"Days ago he lost his knife here," the little sultan translated. "He asked our permission to stop and recover it."

While we waited, a school of large yellow and gray fish approached us, tentative at first, then relaxed and inquisitive. They were beautiful, and they were everywhere.


The Imperialists

Once, the little sultan drove us through the shadow of an old fort crowning a high cliff.

"It is Portuguese," he said. "They came long ago to free us from Islam."

They had built the fort and filled it with soldiers. They had attacked Arab trade routes and attempted to liberate the natives. When the natives refused to be liberated, they had waged a losing war and fled the island, the half-skeletons of the fort and a church the only evidence of their bloody stay.

We passed through the shadow in an instant.


The Man From Qalensiyah

Once, on the road to Qalensiyah, the little sultan stopped the car to greet an old man.

The man had been searching the fields outside the village for a pregnant goat he feared was in distress. Nightfall had slowed his progress, and the offer of a ride home was too tempting to decline.

So all together we entered Qalensiyah.

Power lines sagged between rooftops, but the sprawling village failed to give off the faintest spark of electricity. And we made our way through the narrow streets in darkness.

The old man directed us but became more and more lost at every turn. Traveling by car seemed to confuse and discombobulate him. And attempting to orient him with the village's central mosque only made matters worse.

Finally, we came upon a young boy who recognized our bewildered passenger. And climbing on to the side of the car, he showed us the way to the old man's home.

Later that night, over bowls of spaghetti and fresh barracuda, we wondered about the goat and hoped she was okay.


The Seven Shipwrecks

Once, straining to be heard above the waves splashing against the rocks and weather-beaten coral, the little sultan spoke of monsoons, sirens, and shipwrecks.

For many centuries, sailors had mistaken the yearly storms that pummel the island for powerful magic. Fearing the Socotri people would blow them far out to sea, they steered their bows clear of the coastline.

In more favorable weather, it was said that beautiful Socotri women, naked among the hermit crabs and driftwood, lured ships carrying valuable cargo to the reef-lined shallows, where they were sunk and plundered.

Seven shipwrecks now littered the seabed to the east. The most famous belonged to a Somali Queen who had sought to transport a priceless automobile with shining gold plates to the island.

Over the years, many divers had searched the wreck—but found only eels and schools of silver fishes.


An Unexpected Visitor

Once, the little sultan slept through a most unexpected encounter.

All night, the ghost crabs had tapped and clicked across the wet sand, and finally poking our heads through our tent flaps to see them, we were startled by a passing camel.

She was just feet away, towering above the snail shells and crab tracks, shooting stars whizzing over her head.

Alarmed by our headlamps, she reeled and retreated and was gone, loping slowly and awkwardly down the beach.

In the morning we stood over her footprints, wondering where they came from and where they led. We considered the billions of random events and fortunate accidents that had set them in motion and unwittingly aimed them here, where they intersected ours for a moment before adjusting their trajectory and going on their way.

The wind had already begun covering them with sand.


A Dhow At Sea

Once, the little sultan recalled the story of fishermen sailing between Dharsa and Socotra in search of shark.

All afternoon they pulled their quarry into the dhow. And all afternoon, fins made figure eights in the deep blue water.

Late in the day, one of the fishermen cast his harpoon at a shark drawn close to the bow. Missing, he struck a passing sperm whale. When the whale thrashed, it shattered the dhow and the crew were thrown into the sea.

"Which way will we go?" one of the fishermen gurgled.

"We must swim to Dharsa," choked another. "It is closer."

"Socotra is closer," gasped a young boy, a wave crashing over his head. The other boys agreed.

For a few moments they debated, the sky getting dim and the wind rising up, the sharks circling under their feet. And in that twilight a compromise was reached.

The men set off toward Dharsa, the boys toward Socotra.

After swimming through the night, the men reached the shore. They collapsed on the beach and slept through the day.


The Evening's Supper

Once, hungry after a long day's driving, the little sultan cleared a patch of ground for a fire.

We gathered nearby to watch Isaa the flute player prepare a young goat for grilling. Isaa had crouched down to stroke the goat's back, and was uttering a prayer soft and low. Then he cut its throat, and blood sprayed the rocks.

The goat tensed and shook, the loose head rolling back, air and waste passing out of it in great gusts. Isaa made small incisions just below the two hind knees and snapped the legs off one at a time, dropping them to the ground.

He made a slit beneath the tail and carefully dug his fingers between the meat and skin, working his hands in inches at a time.

In a flurry he tore the pelt away and broke off the front legs. Then he ran the knife through the goat's belly and pulled the organs free, clearing the intestines and draping them across a low-hanging branch.

He removed the stomach, emptied it, and gently placed the lining in the hands of his young son, who began washing it in a pool of water. He plucked out the eyes and lobbed them into the bushes.

Later, when we were full and content and our faces were orange in the fire's light, we listened as Isaa played his flute and vultures scoured the valley floor for those eyes.


The Plateau

Once, high on the Dixam plateau, the little sultan brought us into the dragon's blood tree forest.

We wandered and gawked, studying the branches fanning out from the treetops like thick intertwining arteries. Somali starlings fluttered among the jagged leaves.

It seemed as though another planet altogether. And we were surprised that Earth's gravity had followed us—that we did not float for a moment between footsteps before gently returning to the ground.


The Little Boy and the Tsunami

Once, the little sultan told us the story of a terrible storm that drained the tide from the beaches.

When the water suddenly receded far from shore, hundreds of thrashing fish were stranded in its wake. A little boy, attracted by their flopping, descended upon the flats intent on an easy supper.

But just as quickly as the water had vanished, it returned—all in a pounding, crashing wave that swallowed the boy and the fish and the beach in a single gulp.

"If a tsunami comes again," the little sultan assured us, "I will bind my children to car tires. And they will float and be saved."


The Tanks Pointing Out To Sea

Once, with the windows down and Arabic pop music roaring on the stereo, the little sultan drove us from Hadibo along a road that followed the Arabian Sea.

Past trash heaps, wandering camels, and hitchhikers squatting low on the side of the road, we went. Past red plastic bags and yellow vultures and otherworldly plants squeezing through the rocks. Past schoolchildren and their frantic waving.

Then the tanks came tumbling into view, one after another, four in a row, half buried in the sand.

"They are Russian," the little sultan informed us. "Brought here long ago to defend Socotra when the island was ruled by communists."

Odd things they were, and rusty orange. Just sitting there, turrets frozen, all aimed at the impossibly blue-green water.


A Fire

Once, the little sultan heard news of a devastating fire.

A family had been badly burned, and a young girl's breasts had been destroyed in the flames.

So he visited his neighbors and the neighbors of his neighbors, taking up money for her operation. For four days he traveled from village to village, knocking on every colorful door, pleading before every sympathetic face.

"We are responsible for each other here," he told us.

And we saw in his eyes that it was true.


A Word In Socotri

Once, after a breakfast of sweet potatoes and sugary tea, the little sultan taught us a Socotri word.

"Halas," he said.

"Halas?" we asked.

"We are done. The meal is over. We are finished. It is through. Halas."

"Ah, halas."

Slowly and unsteadily, we began weaving the word into our conversations—after meals, after long drives in the hot sun, after days had ended, after we had boarded our crowded airplane and taken our seats and said goodbye.


The Dreams We Had

Once, the little sultan said three quiet goodbyes.

When he had disappeared from the terminal gates, lost among the travelers frantically clamoring for tickets, a melancholy took his place. We stored it in the overhead compartment, unpacked it when we landed, and carried it with us for many months.

During that time we were visited by dreams of the island. As if it had been pressed long and hard against our cortexes, leaving a perfect imprint of its topography.

Now, the dimples and grooves begin to shallow, and our minds retake their shape. The dreams grow less frequent and less vivid. And we wonder to ourselves what will take the place of our melancholy, that space that once so perfectly fit our guide and friend.

We must forever guard its borders.


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