Category Archives: Middle East

Alcohol Belts of Europe

Europe has three alcohol belts. The vodka belt in the northeast, the beer belt in the northwest and the wine belt in the south.

Also included in the wine belt here are Israel, Lebanon and Armenia, where wine is often drunk. Notably, the wine region is the least prone to alcoholism; the people there like to sip their drinks with meals, and have cultural and genetic defenses against heavy drinking. All brewed fruits are considered wine: that includes not just grapes in the whole region, but apples in northern Spain, France and England, as well as Pomegranates in Armenia (if you haven’t tried pomegranate wine, get yourself a bottle immediately).

Fruits, not growing in such large quantities further north, means that grains have to be brewed and made into beer, or potatoes and grains mixed and made into vodka. Heavy drinking prevails in the vodka and beer belts, though it’s far worse in the vodka belt, where alcoholism is almost a cultural norm among men. In fact, the place where Orthodox Russian civilization begins and Western European civilization ends (this can be somewhat blurry, mind you) is at the end of the beer belt, in Poland, Finland and the Baltic States.

All of these regions overlap, and they have their origin in climate and geology, though such climactic differences have resulted in some rather large cultural differences on the European continent.

My ideal part would be an overlapping region of the wine belt and beer belt, my two favorite drinks. Southern German, the Czech Republic, Austria… these regions also make the best beer, because they can experiment more with different temperatures and variations including fruits.


Surreal Island: Socotra, Yemen

When I was down in Patagonia I got the sensation a couple of times of being on another planet. From the photographs, Socotra, a Yemenite island located off the Arabian Peninsula, is even more unearthly.

It’s the biggest island in the Middle East, 125 kilometers in length and 45 kilometers across and only about 50,000 people live out there and it’s not easy to get to. If you’re actually considering going, don’t bother buying any guidebooks, because apparently they’re all wrong. Here is a good quick overview of why; the writer also offers some solutions of how to get around this unaccomodating, untouristic island. If you want a real adventure, this is a place you can still go to.

Keep in mind, this is the worst place in the world for pirates. Not a week goes by when I don’t hear about some family, mostly Europeans, being captured and ransomed by Somali pirates. There’s also a lot of unrest in Yemen; but hell, this isn’t the kind of place you go to if you can’t handle a little danger.

Due to its geographic isolation, the island is home to its own varieties of desert plants. This is the kind of stuff you read about in science fiction. No need to go to another planet.

It’s part of a group of 4 islands that have been geographically isolated from mainland Africa for the last 6 or 7 million years. Like the Galapagos Islands, this island is teeming with 700 extremely rare species of flora and fauna, a third of which are endemic to the Island; that is, found nowhere else.

The climate, harsh, hot, and dry, doesn’t stop desert plant life from thriving there. The wide sandy beaches rise to limestone plateaus full of caves up to 7 km in length and mountains up to 1525 meters high.

The name Socotra is derived from a Sanscrit name, meaning “The Island of Bliss.” East Indians colonized the Island a while ago and left their genetic mark; the people are now a mix of South Asian, Arab and Somali.

There’s a strange and crazy botanical allure, kind of like something out of H. P. Lovecraft’s warmer version of the “Mountains of Madness” – the trees and plants of this island being preserved through long geological isolation, some varieties being 20  million years old.

Here is the dracena cinnibaris or “Dragon’s Blood Tree,” the source of valuable resin for varnishes, dyes, and “cure-all” medicine; also used in  medieval ritual magic and alchemy.

There is also the Desert Rose (adenium obesium) which looks like kind of like a blooming elephant leg.

Somewhat similar to the weird Dorstenia gigas, is this “bucha” vegetable, found as far north as Croatia.

Also found in Socotra ‘s landscape is the strange and extremely rare Cucumber Tree (dendrosicyos socotranum). This plant is actually related to what’s sitting in a pickle jar in your fridge.

It’s not easy to get around Socotra. Despite the fact that the main island has around 40,000 inhabitants, the Yemeni government put in the first roads just 2 years ago after negotiations with UNESCO, which has declared this island a World Natural Heritage Site. You can get camel rides probably easier than most other forms of transport, but there’s probably a few beat up jeeps you could rent out.

If you decide to visit there, you can forget about beachfront hotels and restaurants. This island is geared towards Eco-tourism and sustaining the local economy and way of life. I think there’s one or two hotels, but they’re probably more like pensiones.

The native people. Like I said, an interesting mix. Since they’re so isolated from the world, they’re mostly just focused on preserving their way of life and going about subsistence farming. It’s also a huge offense to try to take their picture.

The Island is a bird-watchers paradise as well. There are over140 different species of birds; 10 of which are not found anywhere else in the world.  A unique Socotra warbler, sunbird, starling, bunting, sparrow and cisticola are among the ones found here. There are also Socotra Cormorants:

Lots of old shipwrecks around here.

To give you a glimpse of Socotra’s and Yemen’s unique architecture, look at this place located on the mainland: Al Hajarah, Yemen  – “Walled city in the mist.”

Known for decades as the “Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, Socotra is one of those “lost world” islands (separated from the world six million years ago) where intrepid travelers—particularly those seeking exotic nature and wildlife in a remote tropical setting—can go days on end without rubbing shoulders with tourists. Being so far away from everything and in such a dangerous part of the world will likely keep it that way for quite a while.