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Photos by Ray Montoya

Stranded on Socotra

Words by Nick Price

Photos by Ray Montoya

On March 13, 60-year-old retired schoolteacher Ray Montoya arrived on the Arabian Archipelago of Socotra, intent on landing what is thought to be the first permit on a fly from the war-torn country of Yemen. Three weeks later, the talented fly-tyer, photographer, artist, and angler was still there, grounded like the rest of us. But Montoya is not like the rest of us. A Navy veteran, he grew up in a third-generation military family, bouncing around the U.S. as a kid. He became a teacher after college, and in the late ’90s began teaching internationally with his wife, Kerry. After a four-year stint in Papua New Guinea, the couple has spent the past 18 years living and teaching in Muscat, Oman. Montoya has landed more than 200 permit from Omani beaches, which stretch for more than 1,000 miles along the Arabian Sea. On April 2—Ray’s 22nd day on Socotra—he made an Instagram post of his temporary home: a mosquito-net-covered mattress lying next to a nylon tent, both sitting beneath a small, date-palm shelter at a skinny-water refuge called Detwah Lagoon. His post: “The line between camping and homelessness is beginning to blur.” 

At just over 1,400 square miles, the island of Socotra is roughly the same size and shape as New York’s Long Island. But there are fewer than 60,000 Socotrans, so Long Islanders outnumber them by nearly 8 million. Politically and economically, the island is part of Western Asia, since it belongs to the country of Yemen (or did, until June 20, when separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates seized control of the province. More on that later). Geographically, Socotra is more closely tied to Africa, sitting only 150 miles from the East coast of Somalia, and nearly 250 miles from the south coast of Yemen. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the island is believed, in some ancient writings, to be the original Garden of Eden. The place is so remote, so unique in its flora and fauna, that more than a third of its plant species and 90 percent of its reptiles are found nowhere else on earth. 

Montoya, with a Hemingway-white beard and a Mediterranean complexion, shared some of this spectacular plant life with his ’Gram followers during his stay, posting pictures of bottle trees and dragon’s blood trees, two of the island’s most famous. (Socotra is also home to a forest of frankincense—plant of the incense-gifting wise man.) But while flora is clearly an interest, Ray was there for the fauna, specifically the piscafauna, more specifically, trachinotus blochii—the Indo-Pacific permit.

Socotra dragonblood trees

The term “Indo-Pacific” refers to that massive chunk of sea getting squeezed between the 30th parallels as it pushes east from the coast of Africa, across Indonesia to the central Pacific. It is home to more than 3,000 species of fish—more than double the number found in the Atlantic or Pacific oceans along either side of the Americas. One of those species is the Indo-Pacific permit, distinguished from its Caribbean cousins by a glowing yellow tail and fins, bright as freshly shucked corn.

Montoya prefers fishing for them solo. “Arabian perms in the shallows are solitary creatures,” he says. “If you want to find them, it’s best to adopt this same solitary nature.” But he didn’t make this trip solo. In fact, were it not for his friend, Peter Coetzee, already en route from South Africa, Montoya may never have left Oman. Ray is no stranger to international travel, in particular DIY voyages to adventurous locations. But the evening before his scheduled departure on March 10, with bags packed and flights purchased, COVID news was already circling the globe. While deliberating the decision with Kerry, she gave Ray the final, necessary push: “If you don’t go, neither of us will be able to live with your regret.” Besides, this was not Montoya’s first trip to Socotra. 

Shortly after he and Kerry arrived in Oman in 2002, Montoya bought an 11-pound bonefish at a fish market. He stuck it in the back of his freezer and occasionally brought it out to show dinner guests. But his guests couldn’t have comprehended its significance. “I spent years searching for a living replica of that fish,” he says. “I saw plenty of other double-digit bonefish in markets, but local fishermen would always tell me that they were caught in deep water, so I eventually gave up looking for them in the shallows.” 

Two years later, on a family camping trip to an Omani beach, his youngest daughter, Solita, landed an Indo-Pacific perm using a prawn and spinning tackle. This was a defining moment for Montoya, as he then set his sights almost exclusively on permit, enjoying much success. But those big bones still intrigued him, and he had yet to catch one from the Arabian Peninsula. Ray’s aha moment arrived in 2013. While scanning a Socotra tourism website he came across a photo of a man holding a bonefish along a white-sand beach. He convinced his Omani fishing partner, Kamal Busaidi, to join him on a mission. Montoya and Busaidi were not the first people to cast a fly on Socotra, but they were surely the first to hire a driver with a four-wheeler to shuttle two flyfishermen around for ten days, traversing the island for bonefish (culminating with success at Detwah Lagoon). “We did finally catch a half-dozen bones,” Montoya says. “But we also saw some permit, which was just as exciting.”

Zahadiya the matriarh

Montoya hoped to return the following year, but instead had to wait seven, due to warring factions battling it out on Socotra. For all the enthusiastic travel stories praising the historical, cultural, and ecological bounty of the island, its most valuable asset remains its highly strategic location, economically, politically, and militarily. In a normal, non-pandemic year, more than three million barrels of oil a day leaves the Persian Gulf and heads southwest through the Gulf of Aden, then north through the Red Sea and Suez Canal to the Mediterranean—all of it travelling just north of Socotra. If an oil tanker doesn’t choose this route, then it must add some 5,000 miles to the trip by going south around the African continent and north through the Atlantic.  

Beyond oil, billions of dollars in other cargo also gets transported past the island each year. (Sitting between Socotra and the Horn of Africa is the Guardafui Channel, where Captain Phillips and Tom Hanks were both captured by Somali pirates.) India alone moves more than $100 billion annually through the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, using a navy battleship as an escort. The western edge of the Arabian Sea is simply one of the most highly contested regions on the planet, with many powerful nations, including the U.S., jockeying for decades to get shipping and/or military bases in the area. (Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent U.S. base in Africa, sits west across the Gulf of Aden from Socotra.)

Then there’s the fighting among various factions within Yemen itself. Or, as Montoya puts it—in a view shared by many— “a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” This fighting had kept Socotra closed to foreigners until November 2019. [A drastically oversimplified breakdown of Socotra’s “warring factions” in 200 words: From 1967 to 1990, Yemen was two countries; North Yemen and South Yemen—which included Socotra.

In 1979, the two countries went to war. South Yemen was backed by the Soviet Union, making it the only communist country in the Arab World. North Yemen was backed by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. That 1979 war lasted only three weeks, but when communism collapsed a decade later, South Yemen collapsed with it, reuniting South and North Yemen in 1990. Yet the two sides—government loyalists in the north vs Yemeni separatists in the south—have engaged in nearly nonstop civil war ever since. The conflict intensified after Arab Spring in 2011, with fighting between the north (led by the Iran-backed Houthis) and the south (led by the Saudi and UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council [STC]) has only increased since, deepening an already dreadful humanitarian crisis). In April 2018, UAE sent troops to Socotra to basically take over the island, and by April 2020, STC had declared self-rule in the south. On June 20, just weeks after Montoya finally departed for New Mexico, the UAE-backed STC troops assumed total control of Socotra, taking over its military bases and other government facilities. (Montoya’s assessment: “My heart breaks for Yemen. Good people stuck in a tragic situation.”)

The Socotra Archipelago is not one island but four, with the namesake Socotra joined by much smaller Darsah, Samhah, and Abd al Kuri. Immediately upon their arrival at the airport near Hadibah—Socotra’s largest town—Montoya and Coetzee boarded a small fishing boat and sailed 12 hours overnight to Abd al Kuri, 65 miles to the southwest, toward Somalia. One security attaché joined them, armed with an AK-47 to dissuade pirates or kidnappers. The pair were the second known group to flyfish the island. The first, in 2014, was from South Africa. (Of course.)

Windy conditions made for low visibility and tough casting, but over the course of five days, the two accomplished anglers landed several beautiful, intriguing, hard-fighting fish, including blue trevally and the stunning swallowtail parrotfish. But over those same five days, the world had dramatically changed. Word reached Abd al Kuri via sat phone: Yemenia Airways was suspending operations, and the last flight off Socotra was leaving in 15 hours. The crew hurriedly lifted anchor and sailed back to Hadiboh, but they didn’t make it in time. (Or, as Montoya put it on Instagram: “We scrambled back to make the last flight, but fortunately missed it!”)

Though Coetzee loves adventurous, exploratory flyfishing as much as Montoya, he desperately needed to get back to his job, and felt it necessary to remain in Hadiboh in case a flight off the island materialized. Ray had other plans. Hadiboh is a city of roughly 9,000 people, with bumpy dirt streets, small shops, and battered, dust-covered SUVs. Goats roam the roads and wander inside restaurants and businesses, serving basically as “the equivalent of bus boys and doormen,” Ray joked. He relented to spend a few nights there, but once it became apparent that it would take weeks or longer to arrange an evacuation flight, Montoya set his sights on Detwah Lagoon, where he first found bonefish in 2013. And where he believed he could find permit.

Socotra Permit

But permit visions weren’t Ray’s only reason for wanting to leave Hadiboh. The mood around the city was worsening, and some locals began chiding the stranded tourists, calling out “corona” while crossing the street to avoid contact. Montoya was getting a little concerned about a growing resentment among some Habidoh residents, and he felt Detwah would be the perfect place to keep a low profile. He made sure Coetzee knew to send a driver or come fetch him in Detwah should a departure flight come together. Essentially, “Don’t leave the island without me” were his parting words. Then off he went, permit rod in hand.

It’s a 90-minute drive to the lagoon, where clear, shallow water and good habitat presented the best possibility for permit. The only “accommodations” in Detwah were offered by the town’s only human residents: a widow named Zahadiya and her six children—three sons and three daughters—who live together in a small stone house. Her guests stay in a small palm-leaf shelter on the beach and are served three simple meals a day. The shelter provided Montoya shade and a place to set up his tent, where he kept his belongings. Since the tent was too hot to sleep in, he placed a mattress next to it and covered it with mosquito netting, providing protection from ’skeeters, centipedes, spiders, scorpions, and other Arabian undesirables.

After one of his fishing forays, Ray filed the following report: “Arriving back at camp, I braced for the question Zahadiya always asked, ‘Where are the fish?’ I held one palm open with my fingers across the wrist indicating only small fish, ‘Saghir samak,” I smiled. Zahadiya wagged her finger at me, ‘Saghir samak tamam!’ (Small fish are okay!) She then disappeared, and a few minutes later reemerged with two glasses and a pot of chai. She plopped herself down in the red sand next to my mattress and began a conversation in Arabic, none of which I understood. I sipped my tea, smiled and nodded until she was satisfied that I was content. ‘Tamam?’ She smiled. ‘Tamam,’ I nodded, lifting my glass of overly sweet chai.”

One evening on Detwah, Montoya was shyly approached by the uncle of a young girl who played on the beach almost daily. He communicated in broken English and simple Arabic that Ray should lock his bags. When Ray asked why, the man said that his niece had been taking candies and snacks and boxed juices from Ray’s bags. Though benign, he had a thief on his hands. From that point on, Montoya referred to the young girl as Lil’ Sticky. She and her young cousins visited him most evenings and played in front of his camp, ostensibly to seek out attention from their visitor. The boys would often walk by shouting in broken English to Ray, “Hello. How are you? I love you!”

Late one night, asleep on his mattress, Ray awoke to find Peter and a local driver. A plane had finally been arranged, and Ray needed to quickly pack his stuff and hop in their car to make the morning flight out of Hadiboh.

However, the flight, like many other potential escapes, didn’t materialize. Montoya didn’t want to be billeted in a Hadiboh hotel lobby with the dozen or so others still stranded, but he used his precious Wi-Fi time to communicate with loved ones and search for a way off the island. While in town, he learned that Socotra had run out of khat, the extremely popular stimulant, which likely explained the crazed mood of some of the islanders. “The scene in front of the khat shop this evening was scary!” Montoya relayed via email. “People are jonesing!”

The governor of Socotra, Ramzi Mahroos, had apparently decided the previous day to quarantine a recent khat shipment. The islanders, having no stimulant, stormed the port and attempted to appropriate the khat, but were sent running when they were met with AK-47 disbursement fire. The governor then ordered the shipment to be burned, which did not improve the mood of the locals.

One morning Ray was sitting in a hotel lobby with the group when an ambulance pulled up out front. Four men clad in surgical scrubs rushed in unannounced and ordered everyone to line up. The men wanted to draw blood from the visitors, presumably as a show to the locals that authorities were doing all they could, and also to prove that there was no Covid-19 on the island. “I pulled my classic party trick and quietly slipped out the front door,” Ray said. “I learned later that I was the only one to escape the poking and prodding, and that the whole event was a publicity stunt.”

Ray returned to Detwah and continued searching for permit. Only two towns on Socotra had power, so there was no ice or refrigeration to keep perishable food. He’d grown accustomed to drinking warm water. His diet of fish, rice, potatoes, Arabic breads, goat meat, and beans with red chili, kept him nourished, but he was missing fresh fruits and vegetables. Thanks to Lil Sticky, he all but ran out of snacks to carry while fishing.

Peter came to Detwah a few times, but by and large Ray fished alone, spending the better part of each day walking the pristine, white-sand beaches barefoot—his preferred way to fish. Montoya strives to have the smallest possible profile when hunting permit from a beach, preferring to carry one rod, usually his 8-weight, along with a small box of flies and some tippet. He’d been on the island nearly three weeks, and for a majority of that time, the weather had been far wetter than normal, which made spotting fish virtually impossible.

Socotra fly fishing images

But on day 18, the conditions greatly improved, and with the welcomed sunshine came ideal visibility. “Five minutes into my beach walk that day,” Ray recounts, “I spotted what appeared to be a double-digit bonefish more than 100 feet out, coming right at me in the shore wash. Conditions were perfect—blue-sky morning with a flat sea and pushing tide. I set up from a kneeling position and put the first cast on the sea-side of the fish, thinking it would veer out of the shore wash into the deeper water. But instead it stayed tight to the beach, and then I could see that it was a permit. I quickly repositioned the fly to the beach side, and on the first slow strip the fish pounced on it. After two runs into the backing, and a clean fight over white sand, I gently eased the very first fly-caught Yemeni permit into my waiting hand.”

Ray continued his search the following three days and had shots at two more large permit. By midweek, Peter reappeared, spent a day fishing, and spent a hot, mosquito-infested night next to Ray’s camp. By the next evening, they both felt they should return to Hadiboh and check on any new flight developments. The Khareef season was coming—seasonal monsoons. Ramadan was also approaching, meaning most of the island would be shut down during the month of fasting, prayer, and reflection. Besides, Ray was starting to feel guilty that he was here in one version of paradise—albeit with increasingly rambunctious khatless locals—while his friends and loved ones were quarantined. Montoya and Coetzee left Detwah that day not knowing it would be their last, now familiar bumpy ride to Hadiboh. Back in town, they got word that a medical flight would be arriving in a few days, delivering supplies to the local hospital. The stranded tourists had worked enough magic to get on the outbound flight to Abu Dhabi, UAE.

In Abu Dhabi, Montoya and the others were quarantined and isolated in small, single rooms on the 7th floor of a hotel. They were given a Covid-19 test upon arrival and never told the results or how long they would be in quarantine. On day nine, they were all informed to arrange flights back to their respective countries. They were free to go. But Oman, despite its close proximity to UAE, had completely closed its borders. Once Ray knew that he wouldn’t be able to return to Oman, he had no other option but flying to his summer cabin in northern New Mexico, where he fished for trout while waiting for the all-clear to get back to his wife, pup, and life back in Oman.

Abd-al-Kuri-Bohar-Snapper

Montoya had met his goal of not just landing a permit, but also landing what was, by all accounts, the first ever fly-caught permit in Yemen. After releasing his prized fish that fateful 18th day, Ray put his rod down and just sat on the beach savoring the moment. So many things had to come together, he knew, for this to have happened. Along the way, he had unknowingly built a small but attentive quarantined-at-home audience that had been living vicariously through his posts, with some of flyfishing’s most well traveled notables, from Jeff Currier to Oliver White, checking in and weighing in on his mid-pandemic pursuit. Ray’s writing from or about Socotra was articulate, informative, often funny. On April 10, looking back on his special fish, Ray made an especially poetic post with a passage sure to resonate with any permit angler: “I believed they were here in the way that distant waves believe in the shore, that the moment would come in a single distilled convergence of place and time, and that I only needed to place myself in that moment. But most importantly, I had to continue believing.”

*Ray’s wife, Kerry, eventually joined Ray in New Mexico. They are hoping to return to Oman in early August.

 

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Nick Price

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