After a couple of days in Doha for business and pleasure, we flew back to Dubai. Obligatory tourist photos in front of Burj Khalifa sorted, and fortified with a good breakfast, we caught a taxi the next morning to Sharjah Airport. From Sharjah we were booked to fly to Socotra via the Yemeni coastal city of Mukalla.
We’ve been organising our Socotra visit for months. Independent travel on the island is very difficult, and Yemeni tourist visas can only be procured via an agency, so we’d done a lot of research on the half-dozen or so Socotran tour operations. All of the reviews we read seemed to suggest that two agencies in particular were probably the best, so we picked one of those pretty much at random and got in touch. The agent there was responsive and helped us design a ten-day itinerary. We wired him money a couple of months ago for flights (which we couldn’t book independently as Australians), visas and a deposit on the tour. About a week before leaving Australia we received photocopies of our tourist visas via email.
Checking in at Sharjah Airport, one desk over from someone checking in a Canon printer (!), the Felix Airways flight manager sighted our visas and allowed us to join the flight. I was expecting the boarding of the small Bombadier jet to be a Ryanair-style free-for-all due to unallocated seating, but instead it allowed the flight attendants to appropriately arrange passengers according to gender and social rules: women, children and Western tourists first.
As we descended towards Mukalla Airport 90 minutes later, skating over the vast expanse of brown that is Yemen, we spotted clumps of decommissioned and burnt-out military vehicles and aircraft dotting the landscape. The air outside was hot and humid, but a glorious contrast to the single-digit temperatures we left behind in Canberra. Those on the plane transferring to Socotra were herded across a scruffy courtyard to a small transit lounge. Inside were about ten long metal benches, an air conditioner, prayer mats, and a flatscreen TV displaying the three upcoming arrivals and four departures that day.
Our Socotra flight was a while away so we settled in to read our books. Sitting with us were about a dozen other passengers, mostly women wearing abayas and men who looked naked without their jumbiyas. It seems not even a Yemeni can carry a large dagger on board a plane. Through the window I could see the pilot of our previous flight unfurling a small mat in the shadow of the plane’s front wheel for quick prayers before take off.
Two hours later an identical Felix plane landed at Mukalla and we boarded after refuelling. The flight attendant made sure we were seated on the correct side of the plane for the best view of Socotra on approach. Right about now, excitement was starting to build, and the short 50-minute flight seemed to take hours. Our first glimpse of Socotra was everything we’d expected: sheer cliffs and jagged mountainsides, a small bay filled with azure water, no sign of civilisation bar a narrow coastal road. The sky was hazy with low-lying cloud adding to the atmosphere of mystery. Weaving around the mountain contours, we landed and taxied back along the runway to a simple terminal building and tower.
It was a short walk to the terminal from the plane, and the air was a few degrees cooler than in Mukalla. We followed everyone else through an unmarked door and approached what seemed to be the immigration desk in amongst a crowd of people. A couple of officials saw two tourists holding photocopies of visas so they pulled us aside and lead us to an office. This is where everything started getting crazy.
The young official who stayed with us in the office spoke no English but was full of smiles. He briefly examined the photocopies and started writing notes. Then the other man returned with our passports and looked through some files. Soon, several random men had taken up position inside the office to enjoy the spectacle. I thought this must be part of the ritual that I’ve been through several times while entering various countries. At this point I thought nothing was wrong.
The immigration official then tried to explain something to us in broken English but we couldn’t understand anything other than a general sense that there was a problem. He issued some instructions to another man who returned promptly with the captain of the flight to translate for us. The captain informed us that our visas were not valid.
At this point I started to suspect that we were in the middle of some sort of elaborate scam, and that all this was laying the groundwork for a bribe. Then in burst our contact from the tour agency who quickly introduced himself to us and began arguing with the immigration officials. He was quite worked up and seemed very nervous.
A local manager for Felix Airways entered the office and told us that we would need to leave Socotra and return to Sana’a on the next flight which was leaving, well, now. We asked what would happen if we did not leave on the flight, and the manager and the flight captain both said we would have to stay in Socotra Airport until the next flight in three days. It was at this point I expected an explicit demand for a bribe but nobody was making any hints. If anything, the young immigration officer seemed quite embarrassed. I looked around for our agency contact and saw him off in the distance surrounded by machine gun-wielding men. This didn’t seem like a shake-down.
We made a quick decision to get on the flight, although to be honest we weren’t thinking incredibly straight at that point. All of this happened in the space of about ten minutes and in a very loud and confusing environment. We quickly paid cash for the flights and were shepherded back towards the waiting plane with our luggage. The Felix manager apologised profusely, promised a formal receipt for the flight tickets, gave us his mobile number, and kissed us on the cheeks. He then translated for the immigration official who also said he was also very sorry.
We climbed on board and took the front two seats which the stewards had cleared for us. I can’t even remember taking off. We were shell-shocked. We had come all this way to go to Socotra and we weren’t going to Socotra.
As soon as the seatbelt sign turned off, one of the stewards told us the captain would like to see us. We went into the cockpit and Captain Aiban introduced himself and said he would do everything in his power to sort out the situation, that what happened was completely unacceptable.
We returned to the cabin and sat, stunned, trying to take stock of what our options were. We started to calculate how much money we’d lost and how we might use the ten days we suddenly had free. We made a list of all the countries we could think of within a reasonable flight of the UAE offering visas on arrival.
After landing in Mukalla we stayed on the plane as passengers transferred, and watched Captain Aiban talk animatedly on his mobile out on the tarmac. Back in the air, the Captain asked us to the cockpit once again and explained that he had spoken to immigration officials in Sana’a and would take us to see them when we arrived. He said that three other tourists had experienced the same problem last week with fake visas from this particular tour company. Returning to our seats, the steward offered us tea or coffee on a flight where beverages had been restricted to bottled water. “But just for you,” he said. “You are my guest today.”
As we descended through the cloud and haze into dusty Sana’a, we had no idea what was going to happen next. Would we be ordered to buy a ticket on the next flight out of the country? Would we have to spend the night in the airport?
Captain Aiban told us to follow him off the plane and he took us to an empty immigration wing. A conversation took place in Arabic between the Captain and several other men. One of them was a senior manager at Felix Airways named Khaled who spoke softly to us in English, and another was the senior tourist policeman in the airport. Khaled took me to a computer so I could print out relevant documents for their investigation. The tourist policeman assured us, as translated by the captain, that they would do what they could to sort out the problem.
Khaled took us upstairs to the airport transit lounge and gave us blank paper. He asked us to write two copies of a complaint about our situation – one for Felix Airways and another for the Sana’a Airport Manager. About 20 minutes later, while we were halfway through drafting those letters, one of Khaled’s colleagues arrived with two enormous serves of delicious food from a local restaurant for us. He and Khaled repeatedly refused payment for the meals.
Some time later, the tourist policeman approached and handed me his mobile phone. It was the Deputy General Manager of the Yemeni tourist police, Dr Musaid Az-zahri. “I am very sorry to hear you are a victim of crime,” he began in stilted English. “You are a guest in our country and I want to apologise for what has happened to you.” After several more profuse apologies, he told us that he had called the Deputy Minister of the Interior, told him about our case, and the Deputy Minister had personally approved our tourist visas, to be issued as soon as a tour company could be contacted to sponsor them. I stuttered my profuse thanks.
And keep in mind, this was a public holiday in Yemen.
After I’d returned the phone, Khaled gave me some more detail. Police at Socotra Airport had arrested the representative of the tour company we’d booked with, and were going to try to recover the money we’d advanced for flights, visas and tour deposit. Someone from a Sana’a tour company was on the way to the airport to meet with us and organise a new Socotra tour and flights back to the island. Khaled and the others then insisted that we move to the first class transit lounge, gave us the wifi password, and offered us free international phone calls.
An hour later we were ushered out of the airport by the tourist policeman with fresh visas sparkling in our passports. He introduced us in the carpark to a tour guide named Jamil who would take us to a hotel, organise our new Socotra tour with the second of the two companies we’d had on our shortlist, and look after us in Sana’a for the next two days until our flight.
So, here we were. It was 11pm, twelve hours after leaving Sharjah for Socotra, and we were driving through military checkpoints into Sana’a in a beat-up old Toyota Cressida, listening as Jamil explained what we were going to spend the next two days doing in this beautiful, broken city. We’d had no intention to come to Sana’a, but now that we were here we were going to make the most of it.
And we could only do all this due to the incredible, incredible generosity of the many Yemenis who lined up to help us out when we were in trouble (with a liberal dose of luck, patronage and flexible bureaucracy, to be sure). That said, we weren’t going to relax completely until we were on the correct side of the Socotra immigration desk on Saturday afternoon.
Note: I didn’t want this to be a name and shame post, so I haven’t named the Socotran tour company in question. We’ve been assured multiple times that the man responsible has been arrested, and his tour license and ability to book flights revoked. If you are actually thinking about travelling to Socotra I am more than happy to chat further via email.