A Photo Essay Of One Of The World’s Most Neglected Tourist Destinations: Socotra Island

In the middle of the Arabian Sea off the coast of Somalia’s pirate waters, is the Yemeni archipelago Socotra. Of its 4 islands, the main Socotra island is one of the most remote, visually stunning, culturally intriguing, and least visited places on Earth.

You might be wondering is it safe to visit Yemen – and while that’s a bigger question – the answer for Socotra is a flat yes. Socotra isn’t the easiest place to get to but a few irregular flights don’t correlate with an expensive trip. Being Yemeni territory and the nominal connection to the mainland has hurt a Socotran tourism industry that’s never properly gotten off the ground. Only 4,000 tourists visited in 2011 which means many of the world’s travelers are missing one of the best reasons to visit Yemen.

If there were a mascot for Socotra, it would be the dragon blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari). Throughout Socotra’s interior, dragon blood trees grow all over sharp cliffs and rolling hills. Their “blood”, red resin from the tree, is used locally to cure a number of medical problems – remedies famous even to the ancient Greeks.

The pink flower of a bottle tree (Dendrosicyos) – one of three hundred species of plant that can only be found here.

A grown bottle tree, about 2.5 meters tall (~8.2 feet). They begin flowering when they’re quite short so I didn’t have to climb this one to get a nice flower closeup.

Meals in Socotra are a simple matter eaten with hands, preferably under shade, and often in the company of good conversation. Though unlike a good raki night, there’s no alcohol around. Socotris are strict Muslims.

Although Socotra is a part of Yemen, Socotris have a distinct culture set apart from the blend of African, Indian, and Arab influences surrounding it.

Not technically required, visiting Socotra without a guide you’ll likely end up missing local hiking trails, plants that only grow in one square half-kilometer in the universe, as well as hidden pools to cool off during the hot days. Annual temperatures average in the high 20s Celsius (mid-80s Fahrenheit) with humidity 70% or higher.

For a guide, I can highly recommend Saaber Aamer, pictured above (email: saaber.socotra@gmail.com tel: 00967-771-969-576).

The remnants of ancient lava flows roughly 5 million years old in Socotra, which is located between the Arabian and African tectonic plates.

As you can imagine, fish is a staple food on Socotra.

There aren’t a lot of people in Socotra and only one settlement you could call a city, is the capitol (called Hadibo) near the airport. Everywhere else there are tiny town, where there’s not a lot going on. Most Socotris live in the countryside.

The way to make a living is by fishing or through tourism.

Workers at Socotra’s only harbor.

There couldn’t be a more nondescript plant on Socotra but the healing powers of its sap are known to locals; put on cuts it has a mild pain relieving effect.

These aloe perryi plants might be one of the reasons Alexander the Great wanted to conquer Socotra 2,400 years ago.

Although Hurghada, Egypt is one of the best places I’ve snorkeled in the world, Socotra is a close second. The fish don’t expect to see humans which gives you the opportunity to see a lot of curious sea life up close.

An endangered Egyptian vulture takes a break from the heat. There are only an estimated 21,000 mature adults left in the world and the population of Egyptian vultures has fallen by half over the last decade.

A large lake I’m told you can climb down into for a better look. I’m still not convinced it’s feasible.

Sand with pockmarks from a light rain shower along a beach where the water comes up only to your ankles 5oo meters inland.

The most remarkable part of Socotra is how much it makes you feel like you’re on the edge of Earth, far from problems and Internet connections in a little explored piece of the world.

Eventually the tourists will come, inevitably changing what Socotris themselves want to preserve about what makes Socotra so special. Socotra is definitely one unexpected travel destination you should visit before it becomes a hit – but if you still aren’t convinced – you can take a look at more of my pictures from Socotra and around Yemen here.

Ask Photojournalist Romain Carre What It’s Like To Report From Conflict Zones

November 4, 2014 by  
Filed under Culture, Discussion, Security

romain carreI first met Romain Carre when I was traveling in eastern Ukraine, back in April right before civil war broke out in Donetsk. It’s a lot easier for a travel blogger like myself to stay conspicuous with this small camera in my hands but for professionals like Romain, photographing times of turmoil is much more dangerous. In Romain’s own words,

Born in Paris in 1983 I was first was into computers from the age of 10 and changed direction at 20. After different orientations (such as art school, medical school and faculty of history) I decided to orient myself on the field of photojournalism. During five years I’ve covered different fields such as Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, Libya, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine and others, mainly focusing on conflict fields. You can see some of my photography from these places on my site, RomainCarre.com.

Leave your questions for Romain in the comments below, he’ll be by later today to answer anything you want to know!

Romain’s work has been published in Al Jazeera, ParisMatch, VSD, Time, Elle, Le Figaro, Le Monde, le Parisien, Vesti Reporter, and FranceTv – he’s also worked for WostokPress and Sipa Agency. He’s currently in Kiev, Ukraine and will be here live chatting for two hours, from 12pm-2pm US EST to answer any and all questions you have about photographing conflict zones – all in the comments below!

How To Spend A Short Trip To Vilnius, Lithuania

October 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Advice, Culture, Security, Travel

cathedral square vilnius lithuania

The capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, is the ideal size for active travel feet who want a city that can be wandered around with nothing more than leg power. Like 2 to four minutes in Dubai, Vilnius is small enough to be thoroughly explored on a short day or two trip but leaves enough behind for a subsequent visit or longer stay. Here’s how to best introduce yourself to this Baltic city of 540,000 people.

Get To Your Hotel First, Not The Airport

Vilnius is really refined almost to its edges, except where taxi drivers meet Vilnius International Airport. The majority will gleefully try to charge you triple the normal rate to get into town and while there are airport shuttles available, an honest cab is too inexpensive plus convenient to pass up. One quiet way to beat those shady taxi drivers is to call ahead to your hotel or hostel to have them send a cab for you.

vilnius city tour

Speaking of hostels, I can highly recommend Jimmy Jumps House which is comfortable, clean, and close to town. Here’s my full review of Jimmy Jumps House with more details.

Most of you who’re familiar with eastern Europe know this is standard practice to avoiding getting ripped off (in India as well) so be sure to have your unlocked mobile phone and hostel digits handy. (In case you don’t, the departures terminal upstairs has free wireless for a Skype Out call.)

From Art To Old Then Back Again

When walking around generally one wants to see unique – and brick buildings with straight edges in Europe just isn’t it. You’re better off starting with Uzupis, literally “across the river” in Lithuanian. It’s the hippie-ish we-might-be-smoking-weed-before-painting-things neighborhood of Vilnius.

uzupis bridge vilnius

Visually, it’s interesting, whether you happen to be intoxicated or not. (Keep in mind marijuana is illegal in Lithuania.) Although they don’t look inviting, many of the alleyways are colored with extraordinary talent next to pawn shops that accept Uzupis’ own currency. Yes, Uzupis is a lot like Copenhagen’s autonomous neighborhood Christiania, aesthetically and ideologically.

vilnius uzupis alleyway

Hike, Don’t Walk To The Three Crosses

You can almost miss the Three Crosses monument, which overlooks Vilnius and offers the best views of the city. Just north of Uzupis, don’t just walk straight up, come around and stroll through Hill (Kalnai) Park first. Then, make use of the hiking trail (not the paved asphalt path) going around to the right – where you’ll be able to see the remains of the original monument destroyed by the Soviets in 1950 – the current crosses were placed in 1989.

three crosses vilnius

Hiking down the paved path this time leads you around Gedimina’s Tower, remains of a 13th century fort that most travelers without a specific interest can skip. You’ll end up in front of the Vilnius Cathedral whose side rooms filled with passionate praying reminiscent of Metekhi in Tbilisi, Georgia give a glimpse into Lithuanian faith.

vilnius cathedral

Depending on the season, there’s often a jollier atmosphere right outside in Cathedral Square next to Bell Tower; where I witnessed a student dance group practicing their moves for a large crowd.

15 Minutes On To The Old Town

Meandering slowly south you can recharge with a snack and coffee at a place like Saskaita on Pilies Street, a part of town that captures hungry tourists and locals alike. Granted you might be thirstier for a stronger drink – like a local beer at Snekutis (the one across town toward the bus station.) Whether you’re leaving town on to nearby Latvia or staying for a few more days, much of Vilnius is accessible within a half hour’s walk of calorie burning sightseeing.

Misconceptions About Singapore’s Clean Utopia

September 25, 2014 by  
Filed under Culture, Health and Fitness, Money, Security

singapore bugis junction

Singapore is one of the world’s most centrally organized nations whose legal system imposes fines in the thousands of dollars, jail time, plus canings in an effort to keep streets clean of trash and crime. There are at least 5 laws travelers to Singapore should be aware of that might have you thinking the city-state has achieved sanitized harmony.

Cracks In Perfection

Singapore has certainly attained what many countries around the world can only dream about – the third lowest homicide rate in the world. To put serious crimes rates in perspective, Sweden, Scandinavia’s safest country, has 56 times the number of assaults per capita. Many locals attribute the absence of killings to Singapore’s liberal use of the death penalty. There may be something to that (Saudi Arabia has a low number of murders per capita as well) but the correlation doesn’t extend much beyond serious crime.

singapore food cart

Charts for low population density combined with economic development tend to line up closely with those for violent crime. In other words, rich countries like Singapore who have low relative populations (around 5.1 million) usually don’t have high rates of serious crime – irrespective of how liberal their governments are.

It’s Only Fined If You Get Caught

People in Singapore, where the average annual household income is about $100,000, are willing to take bigger chances with their wallets. The country has had some struggle with curbing litter, despite imposing fines starting at $300. Particularly around outdoor markets like Newton Food Centre you’ll notice litter around trash cans. Closer to Newton metro stop the green lawns (you shouldn’t be walking on either) occasionally have wrappers and napkins gentle floating along warm breezes, lazily noticed by people snacking in the park, another no-no.

singapore metro mrt subway

Locals seem to know when they can get away with rule-breaking, such as tossing cigarette butts out highrise windows and why you’ll never see anyone eating on a subway train – there are cameras everywhere. Given the effectiveness of video surveillance, Singapore is looking to extend closed-circuit television (CCTV) coverage to all public spaces.

Death Or Drugs

Using a number of recreational drugs has severe penalties in Singapore and being caught with amounts above certain limits automatically subjects you to the death penalty as a trafficker. Not surprisingly, Singapore officially has some of the lowest levels of drug use in the world. (Although it’s legal, they don’t booze much either. That award goes to Moldova.)

Before one is walked to the gallows (literally) the country has made several attempts of prevention, beginning with public awareness campaign in Singapore’s school system, the third best in the world. Two chances for rehabilitation are also given, although it’s recorded by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) – a permanent mark on one’s background.

Despite all of this, there are alleys near industrial centers where one can find discarded needles used for heroin. Considering the penalties and island geography of Singapore, one is shocked at the amount of drugs there, let alone that they’re being used. If you’re not in jail though, according to government statistics, you’re not a drug user. Rates are low for sure, but it’s a regional phenomena – on the whole southeast Asians don’t roll joints, pop pills, or shoot up.

The Invisible Trade

Comparatively, Japan has similarly low crime rates but with much less severe punishments for serious offenses. Drug rates are higher across Europe than Singapore, but there aren’t many people getting high on drugs not called weed overall. Singapore does pensively rank high in another category – it’s one of the least happy countries in the world.

singapore arab street

Singapore is a clean country, but Luxembourg and Australia rank higher with lower fines for littering. You can chew gum in Switzerland yet the trains still run on time. The laws in all of these countries outline similar rules – with vastly differing punishments. Stability, safety, and sanitation doesn’t have to come at the expense of liberty and when it doesn’t, the citizens of those nations top out global lists for happiness.

A number of studies from the University of Connecticut and Oxford on criminal behavior show that the threat of getting caught is a bigger deterrent than the severity of punishment. Once the decision has been made to break a rule – you’re not worried about the consequences while in the act – but not having to face them at all. So, the next time you see someone jaywalk in Singapore or discard a plastic fork it’s not because they don’t fear being fined, it’s because they don’t think they will.