“Since this is our first night for the whole group to be together, let’s go around the table,” our Inertia trip leader TK said. “Let’s each tell about…how about something you’re ashamed of?”
There were several groans and a few laughs. Matt, our other trip leader from Inertia Network, started us off with the right tone. He told a story about losing control of his bowels on a street in Vancouver and this set off a chain reaction of embarrassing poop stories.
It was a brilliant way to start the Socotra Island part of our trip, I thought later. Amongst the twelve people in our group were a few who had never camped before and didn’t even know how to go to the bathroom in the wilderness. We had all just met and there were undoubtedly people feeling self-conscious or downright embarrassed. TK and Matt had just made everything safe for us. I’m a teambuilding consultant and this is the kind of stuff I do. I made a mental note that making relationship-building safe might be a whole lot easier on a remote island than in the workplace, but it might also be a lot simpler than we corporate types tend to make it. Just tell poop stories.
The protected area we were camping in, Homhil, was situated on a cliff above the ocean and filled with the unique ecological wonders we had come to see: Blood Dragon Trees, Bottle Trees, Frankincense Trees, Cucumber Trees, Egyptian Vultures. Our local guide Issa and his crew of cooks, drivers and assistant guides had put up our tents in a flat area at the top of a trail leading down to a natural infinity pool where we could swim, jump off rock ledges and slide down a natural waterway. After arriving that afternoon we had gone for a hike and a swim, and now we were having our first dinner together.
We were a diverse group: five Canadians, two Panamanians, two Germans and a Belgian. I was the only American. Eight of the group were paying clients, two were Inertia trip leaders, and two were videographers who would be making a video of our trip. Most of the group had just come from a day of sightseeing in Egypt, but four of us had been on mainland Yemen instead, so this was our first night all together.
Now that we were relaxed, we spent the evening telling stories and jokes, getting to know each other. I heard some of the things I had missed on the Cairo part of the trip. Most dramatically, the entire group had almost missed the plane to Seiyun because Ben, one of our two German videographers, was caught with a drone. Instead of just taking it from him Egyptian airport security officials put him through hours of paperwork and interrogation, holding up the entire group in the process and making everyone nervous. At the same time, however, an amazing thing happened to Karen, one of our Vancouverites. While waiting at the airport in Cairo she struck up a conversation with an American Yemeni man on his way to Aden and told him she was interested in buying Yemeni coffee. He told her she wouldn’t be able to purchase any in Socotra, but perhaps he could call someone to bring coffee to the Seiyun airport, where the group would stop for Yemen visas on the way to the island. A few men sitting nearby overheard the conversation and got on their phones to find someone in Seiyun, and to everyone’s shock, a Yemeni man showed up at the Seiyun airport with coffee for Karen and wouldn’t even accept money for it. “That would never happen in an airport in the west,” Karen commented.
Eventually we crawled off to our tents, which were divided into two clusters Matt had named “Quiet Manor” and “Party City,” although I found Quiet Manor to be full of snorers and not so quiet. The next morning TK came out of his tent with a purple forehead and his hands covered with blood. “The damn mosquitos had their way with me all night!” he told us. We laughed. “I fought bravely. Look how many of them I took down! No one drinks my blood for free!” he roared, holding up hands covered in mosquito carcasses. We laughed harder.
We hiked down to the infinity pool for a last swim before our departure. We’d had a few drops of rain early that morning but now it was clearing and there were moments of sun. Alex and Gaelle climbed up on a rock face above to jump into the pool while the rest of us lounged in the water or on the edge, taking photos, chatting. I was watching Gaelle sitting on the rocks, trying to get up the nerve to jump, when Robyn came running down next to her, slipped on the wet rock, fell and plunged into the pool. Some of us gasped, thinking she might be hurt, but seconds later she popped up from underwater, laughing. “Yeah, that happened!” she shouted. We laughed with her, relieved.
A few minutes later Robyn climbed up again, determined to get a clean jump this time, but the rocks were wet and mossy and she slipped and fell again. Most of the group wasn’t watching this time, but I saw her as she came up from underwater and I knew she was hurt. She wasn’t laughing, and she looked confused. Matt had seen it too, and he was swimming toward her. He and Alex towed her to shore and helped her out of the water while I picked my way around the rocky edge to them.
“I hit my tailbone on a rock,” Robyn told us. “I can’t feel anything, it’s numb.”
The rest of the group was starting to crowd around now, realizing something had happened, offering clothing to keep Robyn warm. Gaelle stationed herself beside Robyn, holding her hand. “Does anyone have more medical training than me?” I asked. Suddenly I remembered Ina was a veterinarian. She was on the other side of the pool and I shouted to her to come over. She palpated Robyn’s spine while I thought about what we would do if we needed to evacuate her. If she had a spinal injury we were surely in for a very difficult carryout, and who knew what kind of medical facilities were available on the island? Some of Issa’s crew went ahead to see if we could improvise a litter.
“I think it’s OK,” Ina said finally, finishing up her exam. “I think she is probably just bruised. Let’s give her some time to rest and see how she feels.” There was a collective sigh of relief.
After a few minutes Robyn said she felt like she could get up and start walking. We organized ourselves to help her walk and to carry the packs that had been left behind, and as we headed back up to the campsite Robyn got stronger by the minute. “I’m sure it’s just bruised,” she told me. “I think I’ll even be OK to hike tomorrow.” A few minutes before we reached the campsite we ran into some of our crew and they were carrying a makeshift litter of tree branches and a wool blanket. We were thankful we wouldn’t need it, but they had done a good job.
Back at the campsite we packed up to head to our next destination: the beautiful Arher Beach, on the northeast side of the island. Strong coastal winds had piled enormous sand dunes against the cliffs towering over the beach, and we set up camp just below them. Some of us hiked up to the top of one dune to see the spectacular view from the top. The hike up was short but challenging, and once on top, I felt as though one move would send us tumbling disastrously back down the front side of the dune. I stayed paralyzed at the top, sitting next to Tami and Karen , one leg on each side of the dune’s “peak.” Some locals had come up behind us and stood uncertainly in front of me, wondering how to pass. “Sorry, I can’t move,” I told them. “You’ll have to go around me!” I don’t know if they understood me, but later we watched them running back down the dune, fearlessly.
That night at dinner our crew had organized a secret birthday celebration for Jaime. Jaime, one of the Panamanians, was an ambitious 60-something-year-old attorney and politician who had previously served as ambassador to the U.S., and who was working on visiting all 195 countries in the world. He had only five countries left. His daughter, Sofi, had joined him for this most challenging of passport stamps – challenging not because it was Yemen, but because neither of them had ever camped before. They told us, laughing, that they usually stayed at the Four Seasons. This became one of our many team-bonding jokes over the course of the next week.
Somehow, Matt and TK had managed to get a birthday cake, and Matt had a traditional men’s Yemeni skirt he bought as a gift for Jaime on the mainland before we flew to Socotra. Our cooking staff sang songs, beat an improvised drum and danced around our beach dinner table. Dinner was Socotri lobster, which I found even tastier than Maine lobster. After the cake and Yemeni skirt were presented to Jaime, one of the crew poured gasoline into a heart-shaped ditch in the sand and lit it on fire. Jaime danced in the middle while we danced around the outside.
It struck me that all this merriment was happening sans alcohol. Alcohol is illegal in Yemen, and we didn’t seem to need it.
That night we slept soundly in a row of tents on the beach, lulled to sleep by ocean waves. Most of us were in the individual tents Issa’s crew had provided for us, but Matt and TK had decided to set up a Dragon’s Nest that night so the Party City crew could try it out. The Dragon’s Nest was a custom-made tent Inertia had manufactured in China recently, just for Socotra trips. Most of the tents were being shipped over from Oman, but we had flown from Yemen with one of them in order to give it a trial run.
The next morning, we drove down the coastline in our four jeeps for a locally famous hike to a cave called Hoq. A fifteen-year-old barefoot boy, who looked closer to ten, guided us for an hour and half up to the mouth of the cave. Ben and Alex filmed us on the way in, a spooky procession of tourists filing silently into darkness, marveling at enormous stalagmites and stalactites. The hike ended at a dark pool of water, where Ben and Alex shot more video before we turned back to hike out of the cave.
That night was our one night to sleep in civilization before the upcoming camel trek. After one more beach swim we packed up our campsite and headed to Hadibo, the largest village on the island, and checked into the Summerland Hotel. The hotel was clean, had spotty wifi, and inspired immediate jokes of the One Season hotel. We were happy to take showers and wash clothing. After a stroll through a garbage-filled but interesting local market, we were subjected to TK’s next and perhaps most impressive group challenge.
“Before we go in for dinner,” he said as we sat in the lobby of the Summerland, “let’s go around the circle and each tell a four-minute story of your life.”
It’s hard to think of a simpler yet better teambuilding activity. We had now spent three days together. Not three days in an office, or a classroom, or doing some fake teambuilding activity. Three days on a beautiful, unknown, difficult-to-get-to island off the coast of Yemen and Somali. Three days spent getting to know each other on a very personal, poop-story level. Now TK was challenging us to think about what we would want this new group of friends to know about us in a mere four minutes. What were the themes? What was most important about each of our lives?
TK, with a genuine willingness to be vulnerable, told a story about being a trouble-making kid who just wanted to have fun and didn’t think about his future, despite having a very supportive family. It set the tone, and others were willing to be vulnerable after him. Stories followed about suicide attempts, rebellious and destructive youths, and attempts to re-define one’s life.
I loved what we were doing. But I was so tired. When the circle came around to me, I begged to be excused until a later date and promised I would tell my story on the camel trek. I went to bed before dinner, exhausted, and woke up to the sound of the call to prayer at 4:30 am from the mosque across the street from our hotel.
Our camel trek was to begin that morning. We drove our jeeps out of Hadibo and into the mountains on a four-wheel-drive road where we met our new crew of four camels and local camel herders for a three-day trek in the Hajhir Mountains. The camels were for carrying our gear, not us, and I was grateful because I had heard that riding a camel for any length of time was guaranteed to make you beg to get off the camel within hours.
For a moment I was struck by how fascinating my first contact with camels was. Then I was struck by how sorry I felt for them. Some of them groaned, stretched and complained as they were strapped up with our tent and kitchen gear. It was clear they did not want to be doing what they were doing. Some even tried to bite their handlers.
Still, they were interesting trekking companions. We spent the morning climbing a muddy four-by-four road into the mountains, the sun beating mercilessly on us but the views increasingly magnificent. We separated gradually into a front, middle and back group of trekkers, based on pace. I was in the middle, usually trading places with Alex and Ben, the videographers, who were faster than me but stopped more often. Behind me were Jaime and Sofi, and our fearless TK as tailgunner. I knew the hike was hard for Sofi and Jaime but they seemed determined.
Lunch was in a glorious open mountain-top pasture. Our camels arrived after us and our crew made lunch and let us play games for a while. Then we strapped our packs back on to descend into the valley. There was another swimming hole on the way down and we stopped to swim in the clear, pristine water. “Let’s do camel yoga!” someone shouted, and Alex, Robyn, Matt and Tami were instantly in a circle on the rocks of the riverbank in downward dog poses.
We set up camp in the center of a valley surrounded by 360-degree mountains. As I was helping our favorite guide, Offie, set up my tent, Karen came into the camping area crying.
“They’re killing a baby goat,” she said. “He’s bricked up in a hole.”
“They do that,” Matt said, trying to console her. I had heard this to be true, although I hadn’t seen it yet; baby goats are kept inside stone pile cells by their herders in order to keep them from their mother’s milk.
Karen tried to accept this theory. She set up her tent next to mine and we pondered what might be happening. “I saw one of the crew carrying a baby goat with us today,” she said. “I didn’t think about what it might mean. But just now they were carrying him down to the river. I don’t think he’s just being kept from his mother’s milk.”
Dinner was laid out on a blanket in the center of our peak-rimmed campsite, and unfortunately the first plate put in front of us was indeed grilled goat. We were divided. Some said they would not eat the baby goat, but others said we should eat him so his sacrifice would not be in vain. After considerable deliberation, I tasted it. It was delicious. I told myself, I am a meat-eater, so I should have to accept seeing my dinner alive before it is on my plate.
Our hike the next day descended through a river valley. We crossed the river many times, and it became a game to see who could do it without getting their feet wet. My feet were already wet, so I slogged through the water without attempting to use the river stones. TK, however, was a master at staying on the rocks. “I am a Ninja!” he proclaimed. “It’s all about the mental strategy.”
It began to rain in the afternoon, and we arrived at an old abandoned stone schoolhouse in the middle of nowhere. At first we thought we might camp inside, but it was filthy, dank and full of animal feces. We set up camp outside the stone walls, on the riverbank. It poured briefly after our tents were set up and we huddled in our tents separately, waiting it out. My tent was missing a fly and the rain drizzled in, soaking my sleeping bag and backpack. TK and some of our camp staff raced to fix it, rigging a tent bag on top of the open fly. I sat inside, watching a camel outside my tent tethered to a tree, wondering if he was as cold and wet as me.
The rain finally stopped and I came out to join the group for dinner. We sat on a blanket for our nightly tea-drinking and story-telling routine, and someone reminded me I hadn’t told my four-minute life story yet. I said that I had always been a person of extremes – Grateful Deadhead, obsessed academic, 80-hour-a-week corporate executive, full time extreme adventure racer – and now I was trying to have some balance in my life. I said that I thought international travel was my next phase, and I was very tempted to cancel a bunch of meetings, change my flight and go to Pakistan with Robyn and TK after this trip, but I knew where such obsession would lead. It was time to have a balance between making a living and having adventures.
The Grateful Dead part of my story started us on a new session of round-the-circle storytelling and this time they were daring, experiential drug-use stories; LSD trips, lost-in-the-woods psychedelic adventures, first-time mushroom experiences. Alex told an endless, hilarious tale about being lost all over some German city while visiting a good friend, tripping for the first time and hating every distorted minute of it. I told some of my Grateful Dead drug stories, and Karen suddenly remembered she had done opium a long time ago. Then TK asked us to tell stories of our nicknames and what they meant, and those stories become inextricably entwined with the drug stories and then the poop stories. Eventually I had to crawl off to bed in my wet tent but I could still hear the poop stories, and could hear Jaime loudly protesting at one of Ben’s poop decisions, “No! No! Don’t poop now, hide in the parking lot!” The rest of the group was roaring with laughter.
Our hike the next day was through a fog-filled canyon dense with Blood Dragon Trees. It rained off and on but we didn’t care, it was beautiful. We climbed one of the canyon walls to a high ridge, separating into groups and coming back together at the top. We met a goat herder family with their cows huddled around a fire, and we edged the cows out so we could huddle around the fire ourselves.
Coming back down from the ridge we found a dirt road leading to the stone house of a goat herder, Nur, whom Matt and TK had worked with before as a guide. He invited us in for goat’s milk tea. Matt had already warned us that our deal with Nur was tit for tat; we could ask him questions about his life, his wife and six children, as long as he could ask us anything he wanted; last year, Matt said, his questions were all about sex. Issa would translate for us.
“If you could choose a wife from among us, who would it be?” someone asked.
Nur pointed at Robyn and offered 100 goats for her. We screeched with laughter. “We’ll see you later, Robyn,” someone said.
“OK, who would be your second choice?” someone else asked. Nur pointed at Karen.
“I think he likes the Asian women,” Matt observed.
A few of us bought some dragon’s blood powder from Nur, which is used for menstrual cramps and make-up. We answered a few more questions, then we got back on the road. We were hoping to be picked up by our jeep crew soon but everything depended on how far down the dirt road our jeeps could get given the current rainy conditions. We hiked along with our camels for another half hour, eventually reaching a river crossing where Matt and TK thought the jeeps might have been able to reach us. No such luck.
Sofi, who had held up well to this point, had a minor break down.
“No…” she said. “No, no, no…”
Sofi was no slacker. In her mid-thirties and fit, she knew what she was getting into and hadn’t breathed a word of complaint up to this point. But thwarted expectations were a bit much for her, and perhaps for all of us now. We loitered at the river crossing for a moment and then began to trudge back up the steep uphill road on the other side. No one talked.
A half mile up I heard a whoop. The jeeps were there, along with Ina, whom we had missed over the past two days because she opted to skip the trek. The drivers couldn’t come all the way down to the river for us but they had come as far as they could. Gratefully we threw our packs on the ground, greeted the rest of our crew and began to take group photos.
That night we were slated to camp on top of the canyon at the home of a man named Mohammed. He had an expansive property with multiple lawns for camping and an open-sided building with a bathroom and a deck for dining.
It was an inviting setting, but some of us, including me, were still drenched from the previous night and couldn’t figure out how to dry out. A small group of myself, Gaelle, Jaime and Sofi gathered to ask if we could go back to the Summerland Hotel for the night, promising to rejoin the group the following night, and one of our four jeeps was detailed to take us back to Hadibo.
Jaime took charge of our evening and enlisted the hotel manager, an educated Yemeni man who spoke good English, to give us a dinner recommendation. He asked for a place with pizza or burgers, and the manager, Abdul, not only knew a place but offered to take us there. We drove out to the airport area and found a fast-food type place that served excellent burgers and fries, and we took our food across the street to an outdoor patio to eat. Abdul told us about his personal challenges. His family were still in Taizz, on mainland Yemen, where he worried for their safety. He had tried to immigrate to the UK many years ago but something had gone wrong, and now he’d been working on Socotra for nearly 20 years to ensure his family’s financial security.
Jamie and I had insisted on treating Abdul, but when we went to pay the tab we found that he had already taken care of it. Jaime marveled, “Where could you go that the hotel manager would not only take you out to dinner but insist on paying the check?”
The four of us spent the rest of the evening drying out our clothing and gear so we could rejoin the group the next day. We found out we had missed a gorgeous night camping in the Dragon’s Nest on the edge of the canyon, and a visit to the local school the next morning, but we were not sorry. We were dry, warm and rested, and ready to join the group for our final night on the island.
On our way out of Hadibo we stopped to see some Russian tanks on the side of the road, left over from a UAE installation in the 1970s and never used. Shortly after, we met the rest of our team on the most beautiful beach yet, Detwah Lagoon. Our camp was already set up and we lounged and swam for a while before going to visit Abdullah the caveman. Abdullah was locally famous for having discovered and sold a whale carcass full of vomit in the early 2000s. Whale vomit is used to make perfume, and Abdullah made a small fortune, traveled throughout the Middle East, then retired to his cave. He looked exactly like a caveman except for the iPhone velcro’d to the back of his baseball cap, on which he would occasionally and grudgingly accept calls from his wife who lived a few miles away in town. He took us to his cave and showed us around; then he took us out to the shallow reef outside his cave and taught us to catch balloon fish and stingrays by hand. We saw moray eels and picked up sea cucumbers. Abdullah told us we would be having warmwater oysters, crab and calamari he had just caught that afternoon for dinner, and when we got back to camp, we found this to be true. Dinner was delicious.
Before dinner, Tami, Karen, Ina and Gaelle went into Qalansyia for an impromptu henna session with local women. I was sorry when they came back and told me what I had missed; seeing the women laugh, sing, dance and joke around, free to socialize without their abayas and veils because there were no men present. They washed off henna paste in the ocean by headlamp light, still telling stories about their experience.
We flew to Cairo the next day. TK was wearing flip flops Ina had insisted he take from her after she threw away his disgusting muddy trail shoes, and we had a good laugh at the sight of a very tall, heavyset Korean man wearing pink flip flops in the airport. On a boisterous Yemeni Airlines flight I found completely lacking in personal space, Matt mentioned he was going to break up his drone into pieces and sneak it through Cairo customs. We already know from Ben’s experience on the way in that this would be a challenge. Ben’s drone had been confiscated and was being held until he left Cairo; and that happened on his way out of Egypt, not on the way in.
As we came through baggage claim, our bags went through a metal detector and I saw airport security agents paying excessive attention to Matt. There was nothing to be done about it. We got on the bus without him, and on the way to our hotel I asked TK if he had heard anything yet.
“Yeah, I just got a text,” TK said. “Matt says he’s having tea with the airport security people and he’ll see us soon.” We both burst out laughing. It was such a Matt thing to say.
We checked into the El Tahrir Steinberger Hotel and took a few hours to clean up and luxuriate in plumbing, hot water and all the other amenities of a business class hotel. Then we headed out to dinner with Ibrahim, Inertia’s Egypt partner who had taken the group to see the pyramids before their flight to Socotra. Ibrahim had chosen a traditional Egyptian restaurant and ordered many dishes for us to share.
We were a group with vastly different ages, nationalities, cultural and professional backgrounds and we had bonded solidly with no alcohol for the past week. Now we were in a restaurant with a full bar, getting ready to say goodbye, and there were many group hugs and collective reveries. People talked about relationships back home for the first time, sharing more intimate details of their lives. There were no poop stories; perhaps we had finally moved beyond that. We went to a café for more drinks after dinner and Matt, Robyn, Alex and I had a special mainland Yemen group hug before we called it a night. I went back to the hotel with Gaelle and Karen and we ran screaming and laughing together across the terrifying Cairo city streets.
A few of our group left the next day but most of us had at least one more day, and I explored the markets of Old Cairo with Tami, Robyn and Matt. We wandered up and down the ancient alleys of the Islamic market, stopped in a café for Hookah, and had our shoes cleaned.
Our group trickled out over the next four days, one by one, always keeping in touch about our travel plans on our Whatsapp chat group. We knew when every single one of us left, and when each one landed in their home country. Ina, Ben, TK and I stayed to the last, forming a final Whatsapp group called “And then there were four,” and Ina and I visited mosques in old Cairo and took a felucca ride on the Nile. We went for coffee at the Cairo Four Seasons just so we could send a photo of the Four Seasons sign to Jaime and Sofi, who were back in Panama already.
I rode to the airport in an Uber with Ben. He needed to go early to pick up his drone; Matt had warned him that it would take a long time. We arrived four hours early but alas, the Egyptian version of TSA is even worse than TSA. After parting with Ben at the ticket counter I waited nervously for him at the gate, since we were on the same flight to Frankfurt. He didn’t show. Finally, the Whatsapp message came: “Can’t get drone. I am screwed. Flight canceled.”
All ended tolerably for Ben, who got his drone the next day and finally made it home. But there is a lesson here, aside from what it takes for a diverse group of strangers to bond.
Don’t take drones to Egypt.