There’s something pretty special about waking up inside a beach hut, climbing out of bed, walking 20 metres across white sand, and straight into the warm ocean. No rush to get moving this morning so we enjoyed a leisurely swim and an even more leisurely breakfast. Several cups of tea and book chapters later, Wasa outlined the day’s plan and surprised us with news that we were going to a wedding tonight. Ten — ten! — couples were getting hitched in Qalansiya and Wasa was bringing us along to the celebrations for the marriage of his wife’s cousin (the buck we’d seen yesterday.) We protested, saying that we didn’t want to intrude, but Wasa was insistent.
Pretty bloody excited about the wedding, we loaded up the 4WD and hit the road.
En route to Hadibo we stopped at a tree nursery to check out a seven-year-old dragons blood tree that was barely 30cm tall, then a mechanical workshop on the outskirts of town to buy ice for the Esky. A steady stream of men and young boys were walking in and out of the workshop, exchanging a few notes for a chunk of ice in a dripping red plastic bag.
The wind had really whipped up close to midnight in Deleisha last night, before dying down again towards dawn. Wasa was pretty sure this meant the summer monsoon winds had started, and when we arrived at Hadibo and saw clouds of dust and litter being blown around he nodded his head. It would likely mean that our boat trip that afternoon was off, but we’d known the risks of coming to Socotra in late May. After picking up some food supplies from traders on the shambolic main street we stopped at the town’s most popular restaurant and grabbed takeaway food to eat for lunch in Qalansiya.
About 10km west of Hadibo sits the airport, a petrol station, and an informal qat market where those Socotrans so inclined gather to purchase their fix after each flight arrival from the mainland. The community’s moral standards dictate that no qat should be grown on the island so it all needs to be imported (usually from Sana’a.) Wasa and Faisal wanted to buy some to enjoy after lunch so we parked at the market and Faisal left the engine and air conditioning running while he dashed off to make a deal. Another young man immediately climbed into the driver’s seat, greeted Wasa, and then introduced himself. He works at the airport as a flight controller and was finished his shift, so he explained to us the different grades of the job and ran us through his typical day at the airport which sees only a handful of flights each week. Faisal soon returned with a couple of red plastic bags full of qat leaves identical to the hundreds of discarded bags that littered every surface in sight.
We drove along the coast for a while and then turned up a steep mountain road that flattened out after the peak and weaved through a valley. There was not a single other vehicle on the road, but there was a camel. (The wind nearly tore the door off the car when I got out to snap a photo.)
In Qalansiya, Faisal drove straight through the town and towards a lookout point. As we approached the top, Wasa — a man not at all given to exaggeration and hyperbole — turned in his seat and told us we were about to experience one of the most beautiful sights in our lives.
He was right.
It was the lagoon we’d spotted from the plane on approach to the island (twice.) The colour of the water and the unspoiled, postcard beauty of the lagoon kinda defies words. So I won’t try.
The wind at the top of the rise was incredible — at times it felt like you could lean into it and take all weight of your legs without falling. After losing the first layer of our skin to sandblasting, we drove back through town and down to the edge of the lagoon. A few simple wood and thatch shelters stood in a spot marginally protected from the wind, and inside one of them we laid out our lunch of rice and goat. Ice-cold Pepsis from the Esky were the perfect antidote to what was another extremely hot day.
Stretching out our full bellies, we watched a steady stream of men arrive at the campsite. Some joined us in our hut and shared cold drinks, while others sat in the empty shelters. Wasa said that everyone was settling in for an afternoon qat chew away from the town and away from those who disapprove. Penina and I settled in for some hardcore book time and then some even harder-core nap time.
We woke as the worst of the day’s heat was easing, startled out of sleep by Faisal throwing a rock at a goat that was creeping up on me. The qat chewers had moved on from their talkative phase and were now mostly quiet and contemplative. Penina and I set off for a walk along the edge of the lagoon. Just as we left, a ute drove up to the beach, the tray overflowing with half-a-dozen men and a pile of drums. They were the band for tonight’s wedding celebrations and they’d come down to the lagoon to practise. The air filled with the sounds of drums and singing.
Walking towards the setting sun, we found the beach blanketed with packs of large white crabs that scuttled away from the human intruders.
We soon found ourselves close to where we’d earlier stopped in the car, but this time down at sea level. It was a lovely spot to sit and enjoy sunset and a brief reprieve from the wind.
Back at the camp, we washed a day’s worth of grit from our arms and faces. Just over from the shelters, most of the band and qat chewers were kneeling in lines on small mats for sunset prayers. I put on the only collared shirt I’d brought from Australia, and Penina chose a more modest outfit with scarf employed as a head covering. Wasa offered me some of the perfume he’d just applied, and we drove a few minutes up the trail to Qalinsiya.
The town was buzzing. Wasa explained that the ten weddings had taken place separately and each couple would have their own celebration that night. We passed crowds of people blocking streets, each group gathering for one of the receptions. A large crowd was gathered in the square outside our groom’s family’s house, watching men put the finishing touches on a makeshift stage. The three of us said goodbye to Penina and she disappeared into the house’s inner courtyard to be looked after at the women’s celebration by Wasa’s pregnant wife. Wasa, Faisal and I then joined up with a few other men and entered the front room of an adjoining house.
Half-a-dozen of us sat on cushions around the walls of a small room lit by a single bulb and a TV in the corner tuned to Arabic satellite news. Wasa introduced me around the room and I had a chat to one of the other guests who spoke English. Wasa and I then compared the wedding traditions of our countries and swapped stories about how we’d met our wives. Occasionally, a man or boy would walk around the room, silently shaking hands with those of us sitting on the floor. There wasn’t very much conversation in the room, and certainly no explicit celebration. It felt strange but not awkward.
After about half an hour, the groom arrived carrying two large trays of rice and mutton and goat. He was wearing a freshly pressed pink shirt and a clean futa, and still looked quite nervous despite having finished his marriage ceremony some hours earlier. Everyone took turns to congratulate him and then we gathered in two groups around the trays and tucked into dinner. I was sharing with the groom and it was his job to cut the large chunks of meat on the tray into bite-sized pieces, and to encourage everyone else to eat too many of them. As with all other meals on Soctora so far, the food was simple but tasty. And to be honest, I was enjoying the break from seafood.
After we’d eaten our fill, we thanked the groom again and he disappeared to share the ample leftovers with others. I was losing track of the intricacies of the celebrations so I just gave up and went along with it all. A bowl of water was provided for hand washing and then a young boy delivered a round of tea. All of the other men drained their cups quite quickly, said goodbye, and left. Wasa, Faisal and I lingered a little longer before saying farewell to the host.
It was about 8:30pm by now and the crowd at the stage was growing larger and larger. Wasa made some enquiries and found that the band was still a while away. To kill time, we drove up to the lookout from earlier in the day and enjoyed the sight of the nearly full moon rising over the mountains. Wasa had also received a phone call from his boss who’d heard on the TV about an earthquake in the region and a tsunami watch. Once we’d verified that the sea was where it was supposed to be, we drove back to town and hung out at the groom’s family’s house for a little while. There we drank more tea and chatted with Wasa’s maths teacher brother-in-law who drilled me for details about the superannuation system in Australia. In the corner of the room, a small boy was passed out on the floor oblivious to the noise, his bare feet covered in a full day of fun’s dirt.
Finally, word passed through the room that the party was about to kick off, so we moved onto the small porch of the house and negotiated some standing room. A hundred or so men and boys squatted on the ground in the square, headscarves wrapped around their faces to ward off the clouds of dust kicked up by the wind and the harsh floodlights. Two mismatched guitar amplifiers on the stage were hooked up to a small mixing desk and were blaring distorted music at ear-splitting volume. Every now and again the music would fade down so a man with a microphone could read out what I later learned were the equivalent of congratulatory telegrams, although these were messages written by families that had contributed something to the celebration, such as an animal for slaughter and cooking.
Soon I could hear drums from around the corner and all heads turned to look. The band that had been rehearsing at the beach marched into the square with the nervous-looking groom in the middle of a crowd of clapping men. The band strutted onto the stage and sat on chairs, and the groom sat on a long plastic bench. The other men who had been walking with the band sat in lines at the edge of an orange tarpaulin laid in the middle of the square like a dance floor and weighed down with rocks. The lead singer wasted no time in launching a new tune and the men on the dance floor sprung into action.
As soon as the music started, a long, long line of men formed at the side of the stage. They were invited up in twos to congratulate the groom and then sit with him on the plastic bench for a photo taken by a man with a small point-and-shoot camera. The poor groom was going to spend several hours doing this, and it didn’t take long for him to start looking bored and fatigued.
On the tarp, the dancers were taking turns to dance in small groups. There was no real order to the dancing, and no formal moves — they just stood up and jumped around with unbridled energy and joy. One young man stepped onto the dance floor from the crowd, dressed in a yellow popped-collar polo shirt and matching futa, and turned on an incredible show of rhythmic hands and thrusting hips. His performance drew an enormous cheer and round of applause from the crowd, and several men approached the dance floor to push money into his shirt (one gripped the note in his teeth and passed it mouth to mouth). Wasa leaned over to me and said, “this one, he is gay.”
The festivities went on like this for hours. Occasionally the band would break between songs for some more telegrams, and the groom was convinced for a short time to join the dancers. It was the first time I’d seen him properly smile all day.
Around midnight, Wasa went and fetched Penina from the women’s party and we tried to find Faisal and the car. The crowd outside had thinned a little but there was no sign of the party wrapping up anytime soon. Some women had gathered at the back of the square to watch the band. Penina and I swapped stories as Faisal drove us to the top of the lookout for one more go at that amazing full moon view in the howling wind. We went to bed in our little shelter next to the lagoon thinking about how lucky we were to have experienced this night.