As a blogger, as a travel passionate, but mostly as a reader I follow several Travel Bloggers. At times it happens that I get a strong connection with some of them. I love the stories they tell, the destinations they choose or the pictures they take. And so I invite them to fill in a page of my Tiny Book. With Nicki it’s the same… but different. Why? Well, not only I like her destination choices and her pictures – by the way she got featured in the National Geographic! -, but her courage is one of a kind; her writing style, unique. She tells it as it is… That’s why I love her! So here, for you: Nicki and her Yemen.
As seen through the eyes of… Nicki
1. Some people buy shoes, others go for cars, all of us have something we prefer, if you are here, I guess you have a thing for traveling. So; why do you travel?
I travel because I want and choose to. I travel because I want to see the world, I want to be awestruck routinely. It makes me feel free. It’s taken me years to figure out that I am not afraid of commitment like so many people accuse me of. I’m afraid of being trapped, being stuck, not having a way out. That tattoo inside a backpacker’s wrist I met in Cambodia of a bird flying away from it’s cage with the door wide open, is as close to a pictorial of my life. I’m that little bird.
My idea of hell: Working day in and day out at the same job, in the same town, with only two weeks given to you for time off per year, but with an asshole boss that’ll surely leave threats and extra work for your potential idea of getting out of the asylum for 14 whole days. But you can’t leave because you’re materialistic, you have a house too big, more than enough vehicles, Ivy League school debt, and a designer shoe collection that would surely make Imelda Marcos green with envy…..
Hi my name is Nicole and I completely avoided the above scenario. I carefully planned my early life and career around the fact that I’m selfish with my time on Earth and want to use that time to go out and see what the world has to offer.
2. You mentioned several times, almost everyone showed astonishment when you announced Yemen was going to be your next stop. Still, you went on with your plans. There must have been a strong motivation to go. What make you decide for Yemen and not any other destination? Was there a book, a film, pictures online, or just mere curiosity? To put it simple, why Yemen?, or in your own terms… Why not Yemen?
I read the warnings, I read the news. I knew that risks. The photos I saw of dragon blood trees and blindingly white sand beaches meeting with the emerald green of the Arabian Sea years ago on some listicle online outweighed risk for me.My Grandma pushed me to go. My Dad and Mom asked if it would be safe (they knew it was on the Arabian peninsula). I booked the ticket for January 29th.At work patients were coming in and of course asking, “Where to next?” I excitedly said Socotra each time and then was asked where that was. “Well, technically it’s part of Yemen but it’s actually closer to Somalia.” After probably the 10th negative response I just omitted Yemen and Socotra, and said The Maldives and Sri Lanka (those were the stops after Yemen).
*Still to this day, I do not usually tell people I went to Yemen unless I feel them out first and see they are open minded about travel, that aren’t going to freak out. Or of course if I get asked the question: “what’s your favorite place you’ve visited?”But then about two weeks after booking my ticket, my Grandma (who is probably the closest person to me) fell very ill. She was in the hospital and it didn’t sound very promising. At that point I had decided I wasn’t going on the trip. I had to stay home. I didn’t start canceling plans yet either, I had hope that things might turn around and go right back to normal.They didn’t.She died on January 20, 2014. I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. This was the one person that I always went to before I made any kind of big decision. That same day, I decided that I’d say fuck it and go. What else did I have to lose?So on January 28th I was at a funeral and not even 24 hours later I was on my way to Yemen. My grandma was the one who really pushed me to book the ticket. She said “You always wanted to go there right? Then go. You’ve been in the country for over 6 months, you need to get outta here with how you are.” So without any change of plan or delay I went.
3. When I travel, one of the first things I notice of a place are odors, then colors, then sounds. Do you remember, when you first put your step out of the airport door, what did it smell like? Which colors enchanted you? What sounds can you still hear if you close your eyes and think of it?
I stepped off the plane in Sana’a the morning of January 31st. It smelled like, well, desert. It smelled like sand. I don’t live near sand, so sand indeed has a smell to me.I followed the line of people down the stairs off the plane and across the runway and into the airport to clear customs. I had no idea what line to be in, I didn’t understand hardly any Arabic, let alone Yemen’s very unique dialect. I just picked a line and stood in it. But before long I could hear “Nico! Niko!?” above all the chattering in Arabic going on around me. It was Jameel, the guide that Abdul-Jameel and Raduwan from Socotra Eco-Tours had arranged for my time in mainland Yemen. He took my passport and my paper copy of the visa, stuffed it through a window and boom I had my very own Yemeni visa in my passport, Jameel grabbed my backpack and we went out the front door.Prior to leaving I had thought well, maybe if I feel uncomfortable I won’t explore Sana’a, I’ll just wait here until the next flight to Hadiboh (Socotra). But I never got that feeling after I got off the plane. Because guess what? People are people no matter where in the world you are, and that’s not that scary to me.After being warned to not leave Sana’a when I was visiting Yemen, what was the first proposition by Jameel? “You have to see the rock palace in the wadi just outside Sana’a, you must!” So against all outside warning I said Lets go!
There were so many smells and sounds that were completely new to me as we stopped at each military checkpoint and fruit stand on the way to the top of the wadi outside Sana’a. The call to prayer being sung out of mosque spires, the smell of saltah and flat breads cooking and of course the smell of livestock. I think there may be more goats in Yemen than people. And every woman or girl that walked past I could smell jasmine oil on them.
More over smell, I think the thing I remember most about Yemen is the sounds. Yemen isn’t a quiet place. The call to prayer had to be one of the newer sounds to me. I had heard it in other countries… Malaysia and Indonesia, but not like I heard it in Yemen. Some mosques you went past made it sound song like and peaceful, others just sounded like an angry man yelling in Arabic while simultaneously choking on lunch.
4. Was it simple to interact with people? Did you find language barriers were real barriers there? What about cultural barriers? Did you ever feel out of place, or did you blend so well you never wanted to leave?
Interaction was no issue. With that being said, you cannot get a Yemeni visa without having arrangements with a tour company and guide for the entirety of your stay, so I was always with someone who could help translate. Granted once you are in Yemen, most guides will allow you to explore alone within the city if you choose. I chose to stay with my guide while outside my hotel. Old Sana’a is a beguiling maze.Even the few minutes at a time I’d be alone, locals would come to me and start naming off different Middle Eastern cities and countries trying to guess where I was visiting from. Even though there was a language barrier, people still wanted to interact. When Jameel was with me many (usually women) would ask him questions and he’d translate for us. Many thought I was from a Levantine country, I’d say Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were tied in that region. Otherwise the other two popular guesses were Iran and Morocco.People were well aware that I was visiting from outside Yemen. I wore a black floor length dress with a black long sleeve top and a black scarf in place of the hijab. I wanted to fit in and not stand out with the current state of affairs. With that being said, majority of women wear the niqquab in Yemen due to Al Qaeda threats. And with no niqquab on, they could see that I had much fairer skin, which made it obvious hat I was visiting. But I never felt out of place, I never felt uncomfortable. Yeah, Yemenis stare. I knew that before I went, and no it didn’t make me feel weird. I stare at people too when I’m at home.
5. What man-made places made the deepest impressions on you? Houses or public buildings? Museums? Mosques? Markets?
While in mainland Yemen I visited Dar al-Hajar, stood atop Wadi Hajar, Saleh mosque, Old Sana’a, the Bab al-Yemen, and the oldest mosque in Yemen.The fact that Dar al-Hajar was carved from rock and was a summer palace of the imam was pretty impressive. The most impressive was just how bustling and full of life Old Sana’a was. With all the government warnings when I visited pre-Houthi take over, I’d imagined Sana’a to be a ghost town. People staying inside their homes out of fear and for their own safety. No, that wasn’t the case, everyone was out and about living life as if no turmoil was on the brink.I think standing atop the entrance to the Bab al-Yemen, gazing down at the energetic chaos happening below in Old Sana’a is the quickest way to fall in love with Yemen. It was just so alive. Cars, people, animals, motorbikes all scurrying around in the maze. A close tie would be watching the sun come up over Old Sana’a while sitting in the window of my room at the Arabia Felix, drinking shai tea and listening to the melding sounds of the Call to Prayer all around me was almost as magical.
6. What about the nature? What’s the landscape like? Was there any place that left you in total astonishment?
The nature of the Sana’a area of Yemen is, well, desert. Outside the city you find dusty mountains and deep wadis (canyons). It looked very much like areas of Arizona, Utah and inland California that I had visited before. But the architecture set it a world away.My very first stop after arriving in Yemen was at the top of Wadi Hajar. It was an amazing site looking down in to the wadi, as it was massive.
7. Tell me about the regular activities people do, if you had the chance to see that aspect. How do they spend their free time? Was it a place that felt “alive”? What could you appreciate about women’s lives over there?
People lived pretty normal lives at the time I visited, after speaking to some of the people I had met while in Yemen more recently it’s a complete war zone and there is no more ’normal‘.People have normal jobs over there like you would in any other society: nurses, bankers, storekeepers, dentists, doctors, engineers, serving food, running shops. It very much is a place the straddles traditional life and modernity. The literacy rate of men and education level of men is higher in Yemen, with that being said, there are still women who attend University, graduate and go into careers. They will most likely go into a career, get married, have children and do the juggling act that women all over do. Jameel even said to me that Yemen still has a long way to go before women’s rights are equal, but they’re better than Saudi Arabia. Yemeni women have the right to drive a car.I also got to see the abaya live and in action. I used to think (with little knowledge on the matter) that women were forced by men to dress in cloaks of fabric hiding themselves because the sexual nature of them being female made them temptresses in men’s eyes. But I saw myself that women have made the abaya theirs with beautiful prints and glimmering gemstone designs. And many find that it’s empowering to wear, with a sense of anonymity. And let’s face it: the abaya and hijab are a great way to hide a bad hair day and a weight gain, the niqquab hides the dark circles from a sleepless night caring for your baby or tending to your sick child. With that being said, I would not want to be forced to dress a certain way. After experiencing the dress first hand though, I don’t judge it like I used to.
8. Food is essential to travel, I love the taste of new things. What’s the national dish, what are some of the most common ingredients? Did you enjoy the food?
Yemeni cuisine is a world away from other Middle Eastern, Arab and Levantine dishes known the world over. Owing to the isolation Yemen has had through history to some treacherous mountains, Yemen has its own unique gastronomy. Throughout time Yemen has had some influences from neighboring countries and even some food culture sailed over from India, but their cuisine still remains mostly their very own. Salteh is national dish, Ogda and Fahsa are also popular main courses throughout the country. Gigantic Yemeni flatbreads along with rice are two staple parts of the cuisine. Beans, chicken, tomato, goat, cucumber and peppers are all common ingredients.Shai tea, a spiced tea will accompany every meal you eat in Yemen. Heavily sweetened of course. Shai was one of my favorite parts of every Yemeni meal.
Yemen is widely known for it’s honey. The sons of Noah called it ‘The Land of Milk and Honey’ and for good reason. The Hadramaut region of the country yields the most prized and expensive honey. Naturally I stocked up and brought several jars of Yemeni honey home with me.
Yemen is also home to the real mocha. Not that chocolatey coffee drink that you’ve guzzled down a million times either. Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Mocha is the real home to the mocha bean. The mocha bean is harvested from Coffea Arabica plants and are still prized for their unique flavor, even today.
9. When we travel shit happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Can you share the most interesting/funny/weird story that happened to you during that trip?
Nothing bad really happened while I was traveling in Yemen. It took me by surprise how friendly most people were. I didn’t go over there thinking people were bad or mean, I just didn’t expect people the be so warm. Women with their cars loaded with kids would stop in the street and honk to grab my attention just to all hang out the windows and scream hello and wave, a lady grabbed my hands and drug me over to a shop to look at Yemeni style wedding dresses and told me I’d make a stunning Yemeni bride, kids waved and smiled, people asked to have their children in a photo with me. Sana’a is a much bigger city than where I come from, and I just assumed people probably kept to themselves for the most part like in many cities. Not Sana’a, everyone wanted to know you.I went to Yemen with a bail-out plan in the event I got to Dubai and things in Yemen had gone haywire. A nice stockpile of cash to hopefully get me out of a kidnapping situation and a tinge of fear. All of this was completely unnecessary at the time.
10. I know Yemen in a way divides in two in your soul, on one side Yemen itself, on the other there is Socotra. Many people, probably never heard of it. So, let’s make this simple: Introduce Socotra. Where is it? What is it like? Why did you like it so much?
Socotra is located right off the Horn of Africa, it is an island that is considered part of the Hadramaut region of Yemen but is actually slightly closer to Somalia. Socotra has been isolated from both mainlands for millions of years, and that isolation is what left it a world away.That world away and all the isolation over time has garnered Socotra with the nickname of ‘the most alien-looking place on Earth’ which is a very accurate description. Walking the dragons blood tree forest of the Homhil Protected Area with near vertical mountainsides dotted with the trees looks like something that could only be imagined in a videogame world.Socotra is home to a number of endemic flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth and the island has remained relatively untouched by tourism which is precisely why I love it. With the island archipelago being protected a UNESCO World Heritage Site I think it will stay that way. However, there are occasional talks of turning the island into the next Guantanamo Bay. Hopefully this will never happen.
This is not a place you visit to be pampered and stay in a 5 star hotel, this is where you come to see raw nature. And with raw nature comes the willingness to get dirty and to rough it. Although I did not feel anything rough about sleeping under the stars with nothing but a mat and blanket on a white sand beach with the sound of the Arabian Sea crashing on shore. Other nights when in areas of the island where it’s a little buggier, you’ll be sleeping in a tent.
I was also met with the friendly nature of the Socotri people. From my guide Sami and driver Ahmed to all the locals I met along the way, everyone was very welcoming. With all the isolation and separation, Socotris have developed their own, unique culture. You’ll see men greeting each other by locking gaze with foreheads pressed together and shaking right hands. Even the language is its own. Kids will come scurrying to you at the sound of a shutter click wanting you to take their photo to take home with you so that you remember them. Fisherman still standing in the ocean with their fresh catch will be calling you over to see if you’d like to purchase a lobster for lunch. It’s still very much a traditional way of life here.
The Haggier mountains run right down the middle of the island and if you’re in the condition for it you can even climb up to its jagged peaks. You’ll pass dragons blood trees, goats grazing and even find yourself above the clouds peaking at bits of the Arabian Sea below.
Down on the other side of the mountains from Hadiboh is what could be the largest cave in the world: Hoq Cave. It has not been fully explored, no one knows for sure how deep it goes.
When I began my planning stage in going to Yemen, I assumed it would be incredibly difficult. It couldn’t have been more opposite, it actually was the easiest trip I’ve booked. Once I booked my tickets into and out of Sana’a, I emailed my itinerary to Socotra Eco Tours. Shortly later I received an email with my tickets to board my internal flights that would take me to and from Socotra. They arranged everything, from my Yemeni visa to my guide in Sana’a. The only hang up I had was payment. No bank in the US will send money to Yemen. After I had contacted Socotra Eco Tours about it, they told me that it was no problem and that I could pay on arrival.
Is Socotra still safe?
From what I have been told by Sami and many of the others I met while I was there, the answer is still yes. The danger of the war on mainland Yemen has not yet extended to the island of Socotra.
11. Now some general questions about travel… You are a young woman traveling solo. What are the joys of a trip alone. Do you get any other feelings from it (worries, loneliness, perhaps fear?), do you battle against negative feelings or just live with them?
I love traveling whether it be with friends, family or solo. I’ve never found myself too lonely while traveling solo. This planet is packed full of people and I seem to meet someone new at every turn. I’ve met countless other travelers in hostels and hotels, on the beach or in the mountains. I meet locals in restaurants, milling around a town and on transportation, even Couchsurfing. I’ve never felt truly solo in my travels. And I’m a big fan of being alone, so don’t fear moments of desolation, I like them.As far as the female solo traveler thing: Don’t let the fact that you have a vagina detour you from seeing a new place. There’s more female travel bloggers out there than men, many of them solo, this should tell you that yes, you can travel as a female and solo at that. Yes, some men are going to say shit, even try to touch you, be flirty and downright disrespectful. Should that stop you from living life? Fuck no. Be firm and stand your ground. You always have to have your own back whether you are traveling or are at home.
12. Where are you off to next? Why made you chose that destination?
If you are reading this, I have just returned back to Alaska from Puerto Rico and its neighbor Culebra, and mid trip a cruise through the southern Caribbean. Cruise vouchers that needed used are what initially brought me there, but never having been anywhere in the Caribbean led us to extend my time and see what Puerto Rico has to offer.Next will be the kick off of my year around the world that will start in Bolivia. It’s about time I got down to South America. What better place to start then a country housing the worlds largest salt flat, Salar De Uyuni and a mountain bike trip starting in an Andean high and winding you all the way to the bottom of an Amazonian jungle?
13. Leave a short message to other women who want to travel alone but maybe don’t dare.
You may be scared to dare travel the world alone, but you know what’s a scarier thought? Having a list of regrets on your death bed because you spent your life waiting for someone to go with you. There’s over seven billion people on earth, you’re never alone! Don’t let fear stop you from enjoying what time you do have here on earth. Yeah, we know, scary things can happen while traveling, but guess what? Bad things can happen to you at home too. With the internet it’s pretty easy to research many places and even reach out to others that may be traveling to the same location, hell, you can even join a tour (that’s what I did when I wanted to explore in Africa and was most definitely going solo). My best advice to you is to just book that ticket and go.
This girl rocks! I told you. Now, do me a favor, follow her adventures, there are plenty of ways to do so… Tell you a secret? If I were to be born again, I’d love to be like Nicki! Plain honest!
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