*Dedicated to Yahya, without whom, I would never have been able to get to Yemen, thank you mate.
4 Days on a Cement Boat to Socotra
I had been stuck on 194/197 countries since visiting Oman in June 2016, after really traveling through almost 200 countries over a whole decade, I had not visited a new country for 7 months and I seemed to be making very little progress, it was soul destroying. I wanted to finish with my last country in Norway, chosen because it’s a safe, easily accessible beautiful country where my friends and family can come and celebrate with me, which left me with both Saudi Arabia and Yemen, 2 particularly tough places to finish.
Through a close friend, and a generous Saudi partner, I managed to visit Saudi Arabia in January 2017, one step closer to my life goal, that left with me with only Yemen. Yemen, in the midst of a civil war, being torn from pillar to post by a proxy fight between Saudi and Iran, would be almost impossible, but after spending so long, sacrificing so much, I had to make it happen. Yemen is showing no signs of settling down, so either I visit now or I could be waiting years.
BORDER HOPPING, AIRPORT VISITS AND TICKING BOXES ISN’T TRAVEL, IT’S TRANSPORT
I know it’s crazy, and a little reckless but in my quest to visit every country in the world, I don’t count jumping over a border for an hour or so, or visiting an airport, as traveling to a country. Just because the country is dangerous or tricky to access doesn’t mean I can just step one toe over a geographic line and move on. I want to maintain my integrity, I’ve been doing this so long, I want to do it right. To travel is a privilege, I honestly believe we should respect that. I literally do not see the point in border hopping other than to show off, but show off what? How much money you have and how many flights you can take? Not for me. So many people dream of seeing the world, and to now having the opportunity to do that, just collecting the stamp on moving seems almost disrespectful to the people who would do anything just for once chance to truly travel.
Since I can remember, I’ve wanted to explore our beautiful planet, not just tick boxes. I find it disheartening to see people merely ‘collecting countries’ or passport stamps, for me travel is about discovering the world, meeting new people and cultures, seeing the best sights each place has to offer, travel should break down barriers not be a race to the finish line, nor should be it be a vehicle for 15 minutes of fame, travel is purer than that, deeper, or at least it used to be. Yet of all the people I trying to visit every country in the world, I honestly have only seen 1 person truly ‘traveling’, and not just hitting a border and moving on, Thor from OnceUponAsSaga.dk (cool guy, check him out, every country with no flights, and REAL travel), the rest seems to be all about bragging rights, and social media follower, it makes me sad deep, deep down. To have the visas, the time and the money to travel so far, yet see next to nothing seems like such a waste, and a disservice to the people who would swap places in a heartbeat. So I’m doing it right, and Yemen wont evade me, not this time.
So here I was, refusing to bend my rules to finish my goal, yet finding it impossible to get permission to enter Yemen. Ouch. The Yemeni mainland is saturated with Al Qaeda, there are air strikes from the Saudis attacking the country at will, so for the me the mainland wasn’t overly appealing. And although Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, is one of the most beautiful old cities in the world, Yemen is also home to one of the TOP destinations in the whole world, if not THE top. An island off the coast of Somalia and Yemen, in the bridge between the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian sea lies Socotra, a Yemeni island quite like no other. This was my target, not only would get to visit Yemen but I’d also see the best thing the country has to offer, a genuine bucket list item but how could I get there?
After trying and failing 5 times to get in to Yemen (you can read all about my frustrations and failed efforts here), I was at the end of my motivation. You can only try so many times, only spend so much money, effort and time without feeling it’s never going to happen. After my 5th attempt failed, I honestly didn’t know where to turn to. My mind was running 100mph, clutching at straws, but realistically I had seemingly exhausted all avenues. I was pretty distraught, wondering if I would remain on 195/197 for the next couple of years until the political situation in Yemen calmed down.
YAHYA TO THE RESCUE. AMAZING PEOPLE EVERYWHERE
My motivation was clearly starting to wane, but I figured I had one last big effort left in me, one where I would throw everything at, money, time, contacts, risk, everything, this was it. One last hurrah. In all reality, I treat Yemen like my ‘last’ country, knowing that Norway is so easy, and pretty much just a big party, so Yemen was it. This was it. But it was impossible, at least it was until my new Yemeni friend YahYa saved the day.
Over the last few months of failing to get into to Yemen, I had made what was at first merely a contact, a Yemeni guy from Socotra who was now based in Salalah, an Omani town next to the Yemeni border. I had spent far too long in this bloody border town through all my various attempts to enter Yemen, in fact I had spent more time in Salalah in the last 7 months than I had in Ireland, my home country, and it had resulted in a big fat zero. YahYa had tried to help me a couple of times during a couple of my failed attempts, and I had been getting to know him better and better, to the point that he wasn’t just a contact anymore, but a friend. I had told him I was coming back to Salalah to try one last time in February, and immediately he committed to helping me.
We met when I arrived in Salalah, but with no agenda, we went out for lunch on day 1, then dinner. I’m not sure if you guys have spent anytime in the Middle East, but Arabs really are the most generous, humble, warm people on the planet, that’s one thing I’m sure of from all my travels. Yemenis then are supposed to be the nicest group of Arabs, and then Socotrians (people from Socotra Island, Yemen) are the friendliest Yemenis! Anyway, you get the picture. Each day I would hang out with YahYa, watch silly video clips on his phone or mine, eat together twice a day, chat about women, politics, football, my travels, his travels, it was really nice and we had created quite a bond. I figured that if and when this final attempt to see Yemen predictably failed, the silver lining was that I had met this awesome guy. Incidentally, each meal time almost resulted in physical confrontation when I tried to pay for my own food, or drinks. Even if YahYa wasn’t eating with me, we would go out for dinner and he would disappear and pay. It came down to me having to speak to the waiter on the way IN to the restaurant, insisting that the bill came to me, ridiculously generous.
THE CEMENT BOAT
Anyway, YahYa became almost more determined than me to get me to Socotra. He was sure he could get me onto a local Yemeni/Indian/Omani fishing boat-turned-cement cargo boat that would transport cement every week or so from Oman to Socotra, at the very least he would pull in every favour, bribe who needed to be bribed, and apply pressure when needed so we would both know we did everything we could. And so the process began.
I checked into a hotel in Salalah, a hotel where they know me by name, my 3rd time staying there at length. And each day YahYa would wake up around 6am, jump in his car and run to the port in Salalah to find out about boats, then he would run to the immigration, then to the office where they deal with paperwork.
He would call Socotra, talk to their port office, their immigration, their police. Day-in-day-out. Waking up, driving from one corner of the city to the other, on the phone all day. Picking me up 2 or 3 times a day for coffee at the mall, lunch, dinner. I’ve never seen anything like it. I hadn’t hired or paid him anything, he had nothing to gain, he was super busy with his own stuff and his family, but he dropped everything to help me, I was truly humbled.
People have helped me immensely on this trip to every country, not least my mum, Faisal in Pakistan, Muad in Libya, Alfredo in Angola, Tekeste in Eritrea, all countries that I would have struggled with immensely without those guys, but this was a new level. One whole week of phone calls, paperwork, cash, documents, visas etc went by and by this stage YahYa has managed to ensure my visa to Yemen wasn’t cancelled as is normal, he had pulled in every favour he had to ensure that immigration in Socotra would accept me via the cement boat, he had organized with the Omani immigration to stamp me out of Oman and allow me to board the cargo boat, he had contacted the boat captain and confirmed that he would accept me on board and he had okayed with a local business, boat owner, that I would be allowed to use his ship, and he had organized his extended family to welcome me in Socotra if I ever made it, to use his cars and a local guide free of charge. So many moving parts, all of them who owe me nothing and only stand to deal with headaches by accepting it, but YahYa through force of will, effort, ‘gifts’ and friendship managed to line them all up. Now it was just a waiting game.
I arrived in Salalah on February 14th Valentines day (apologies to my girlfriend, and thanks for understanding!), and on Wednesday 22nd, 8 days of stress, graft, and full time work, I got the call. Time to go the port. The cement boat was almost finished loading and everything was in place.
Me being me, I hadn’t prepared anything for the journey. In all honesty, I hadn’t allowed myself to truly believe that it would happen, that my 10 year effort would finally be reaching a beautiful end. So when the call came that the boat would accept me, I had nothing ready – no water, no food, no bedding organized, I hadn’t even packed. YahYa had come to the hotel lobby and was calling me frantically, I threw all my stuff in my backpack, and ran downstairs. Gave YahYa a hug, and jumped in his car, I couldn’t believe this might really happen.
We arrived at the port, immigration was there, there were some delays while we waited for more goods to be loaded to export to Socotra and suddenly we were moving. Passport handed over, ready to go. YahYa, as a Yemeni, wasn’t allowed past the port gates in Oman so another huge hug, me thanking him profusely and promises to see him next week back in Oman and on I went, driven to the boat, 4pm Wednesday 22nd February, a date I’ll never forget.
FEARS – NOONE WANTS TO GET KIDNAPPED
As I waited to be accompanied through the port, the reality of my situation began to set in. What were previously fleeting nervous thoughts each evening had now manifester into actual possibilities. Was I stupid to be attempting this? Is this a step too far? My mind was in overdrive.
I had bumped into a musclebound, Leonidas-lookalike greek guy in my hotel in Salalah a couple of days previously, I asked him what he was doing there. He said he was there as private security to guard against piracy in the Arabian ocean. Oh shit. Trying to make myself feel better, I suggestively asked “I heard the Somali pirates had reduced a lot already though, right?”, “Yes, the pirates are showing a lot less activity, now we are more concerned with the suicide boats and the terrorists”. I should have kept my mouth shut. Suicide boats? WTf?! A quick google on that showed 2 suicide boats attack a Saudi boat off the coast of Socotra a month ago, great.
Not only that, but if you google ‘Socotra boat sinking’, as I obviously and stupidly did the night before I left, you’ll see a fishing boat leaving Socotra to the mainland sunk in December, 60 people on board, 35 dead. They overloaded the boat apparently. Heart-breaking, and terrifying.
My nerves were on end, I was so worried about the ship sinking, but even more concerned about either Somali pirates or Yemeni extremists hearing about a foreigner on an unarmed fishing boat. Such an easy target for kidnapping, and if my time is up I certainly don’t want it to be on YouTube in an orange jumpsuit with a knife to my neck, so I decided no matter what, I’ll keep my mouth shut on social media and do my best to get in and out of Socotra, Yemen unnoticed. The less people who know about my cement boat escapade the better. That being said, those 100 hours on the boat will give me ample time for fears to run through my head. Snap out of it Johnny boy. You’re on your way.
4 DAYS HOURS ON A CEMENT BOAT
And then came the boat, it wasn’t exactly pristine, in fact it was downright shoddy. A run-down wooden Yemeni fishing boat semi-converted to carry 8,000 bags of cement to Socotra, Yemen. It barely looked sea-worthy. I would be lying if I wasn’t concerned that it could even make the 50 hour journey but at this stage I was so happy that all the paperwork had been processed I jumped on in a hurry. 10 minutes later I get a big cardboard box handed to me. “From YahYa” the Indian boat captain, Hanif, said to me. YahYa had noticed I hadn’t organized anything in time so went a bought me 4 big bottles of water, crackers, biscuits, crisps for the journey ahead, what a hero.
4 hours went by and we hadn’t left. Doubt started to creep in. After so many failed attempts, I was expecting something to go wrong. I started asking the captain what the problem was, and just then, the Omani official arrived by the boat in his car. Fearing the worst, that it had all come tumbling down, I jumped off the boat to speak to him. To cut a long story short, I paid a $100 fee for all the paperwork, the Omani guy called the coastguard to OK us to leave despite the fact that the sun had set, we got the all clear and finally, finally, finally, after 7 months, I was on my way to Socotra, Yemen.
We left the port and I was almost in tears. Was this really, actually going to happen? I was so grateful for everything YahYa had done, and now my dream was coming true. I just had the minor aspect of 50 hours on this haphazard boat to negotiate.
COCKROACHES EVERYWHERE, AND A TOILET WITH A VIEW
There are no beds on the boat, no shower, nor in fact are there any rooms aside from Hanif’s storage/bed room where as a captain he gets to sleep on a wooden bench, in fact there isn’t even a toilet as we know it. Instead there is a metal bracket hanging off the side of the boat, open-air for everyone to see, leaving you to pray that Indian welding is of a higher standard that Yemeni ship building. There were 8 Indian crew, all milling around, packing the cement, and were really friendly if a little confused by this pasty white guy paying money to traverse the ocean on their vessel.
No one spoke any English except for Hanif and so the night dragged on. By 9.30pm we had left Salalah port behind us, it was pitch black and I figured I should work out where to sleep. I turned on my iPhone torch to organize what stuff I had in my backpack to work out how to sleep tonight, big mistake. The light scared the cockroaches, cockroaches I happily wasn’t aware of in the pitch dark, but now was all too aware. The whole ship was crawling with the things. Every nook and cranny had an antennae or 4 sticking out, and every time you shone a light, a flurry of them would scuttle away from the beam, often towards you if you were unlucky.
Sleeping on the deck, my initial plan, was suddenly not an option for me. The thought of these huge, orange creatures sharing a sleeping bag with me, or worse, was not a prospect I was willing to accept, Socotra or not. I initially went to the cement bags and planned to sleep atop those, but the side of the boat was covered in holes and water was leaking in on top of them. In the end, I clambered on the roof of the whole boat, only to discover 2 of the crew up there, and so I slept alongside those guys. I think the roof was for the lowest members of the crew, but away from the cockroaches, and under the stars and moonlight, I was perfectly happy, if a little uncomfortable on the hard floor, and a little chilly from the breeze off the Arabian sea.
Night 1 came and went. I tried my best to snuggle into my sleeping bag, but with my hip grinding against the boats roof, it would be a push to say I slept well. 8am came and I groggily checked my GPS on Google Maps and saw we were 25% of the journey in, this was happening, it was really happening. During the day the cockroaches descended into the dark bowels of the boat, nowhere to be seen thankfully, but as sunset approached, they grew in courage, you’d see one. WHACK. Flip-fop to the head. Then 2 more, then a handful, here we go again.
The day was spent reading books, playing games on my iPhone and contemplating reality that my journey was coming to an end, relief, happiness, pride, almost a feeling of being lost again. I took time to contemplate my travels, how they had brought me here, now, all the low points, being so broke and struggling to work out how I would even get from A to B, remembering being in the depths of Central Africa fearing for my life as I saw someone get shot, food poisoning in an outside toilet in -10 degrees in rural China on Christmas day, hospital visits in Thailand, Burkina Faso, South Korea, Australia and of course all the beautiful things I’ve seen, the friends I’ve made, the business I’ve built and the life I created for myself along the way. Watching the sunset from the rooftop solo was a beguiling moment, drinking it in, just 24 hours from the promised land, goosebumps all over my arms, nothing to do with the breeze this time. I’m living my life, I can feel it. I couldn’t help feel this was such a perfect, adventurous end to an amazing 10 years.
Another night’s ‘sleep’, if it can be called that, as the waves had picked up and I would be awoken every few minutes as I slipped from left to right when the waves crashed against the boat, I caught myself checking my GPS every 30 minutes, setting little targets in my head, 5km more, then 5 more, before long I was three quarters done. I woke up and watched a spectacular sunrise, today was the today I would arrive in Yemen, it’s time like this I wish I could share these special moments with loved ones, but who would subscribe to such a commitment. You’re on your own Johnny boy.
PIRATES? DON’T BE SILLY
The day passed without note, except around midday I see a boat in the distance. Suddenly all my fears about pirates and/or kidnapping were replayed in my mind. It was quite far away so I tried to ignore it, but it was getting bigger and bigger, coming straight for us, 100%. We were all traveling so slowly, so it took about an hour before I could see it was a huge container ship, and although I know very little about Somali pirates, or religious fundamentalists on boats for that matter, but I’ve seen the movie Captain Philips with Tom Hanks and those pirates use little boats and big weapons so this couldn’t be that. Relief. I was embarrassed at myself for instantly fearing the worse, but when I was stuck on this dilapidated wooden boat with nothing but ocean as far as the eyes can see, I was pretty exposed. The container ship banked left and sailed off towards Salalah, disaster averted, and I needed to get a grip. Anyway, the day wore on, more books, more games, more contemplating, some friendly exchanges with the staff despite the different languages. And suddenly one of the crew grabs me, and points in the distance. Socotra. It’s there.
The last 3 hours on approach dragged like never before, but just as we were getting closer a huge school of dolphins came to say hello. Playing with the boat, racing us, dipping under our nose and back again, jumping out of the water. I was less than an hour away and now dolphins were here to welcome us to Yemen, it was like a movie ending, I couldn’t stop smiling.
And so we arrived. The boat anchored 1km off the island, a smaller boat arrived to take me and my backpack to the shore. As soon as I landed, a man greeted me in perfect English “Hello Johnny, YahYa called me, he said I should escort you to immigration”. YahYa, again. Wow.
On the way to immigration, YahYa called the man. I couldn’t thank him enough. “My pleasure Johnny, no problem, now listen – immigration is fine, I have sorted it, I have organized you a room in the Socotra Hotel and my uncle, Ahmed Eisa, is there waiting for you. We have organized a car and a driver, but tonight have dinner with my uncle and the next day they will take you around the island.”
I went to the hotel, sure enough YahYa was right. I met Ahmed, a lovely gentleman. I never went to immigration, they sorted it out without me in true Arabic style. A cold shower, dinner with Ahmed, and my Socotrian adventure, my dream, was about to begin. I had made it, finally, 196/197. Thank you YahYa, you are a true friend.