Eva zu Beck’s experience during the worldwide health crisis is truly one of a kind. The 29-year-old is a travel vlogger and documentary host who often finds herself in breathtaking locales. Since March, Eva has been on Socotra, a remote island in Yemen.
Eva traveled to Socotra to participate in the island’s first-ever marathon. She and about 40 other international travelers arrived on March 11. While the races went off without a hitch, around the world, concerns about the virus were mounting. On March 15, the travelers received word from officials that the island would soon be closing its borders. They were instructed to begin to travel home as soon as possible.
“We were woken up in the middle of the night in our tents and told that we should make our way to the airport immediately,” Eva told CNN.
Eva was faced with a decision. Leaving would mean a lot of stressful travel, during which she could catch the virus. If she stayed, she would have to fend for herself for as long as it would take for borders to reopen.
“I have so much love for the island,” she said. “I’d visited last year and I swore I’d return one day for an extended stay. I took what was happening as a sign.”
Eva and four other travelers obtained permission from Socotri officials to stay on the island. Everyone else, including Eva’s boyfriend, began their journey home when they left on the final flight to Cairo. Eva and other travelers were screened for the virus when they landed in Socotra, but they had no idea how dire things had gotten in other areas of the world.
So how do you get by on your own on an island with a unique ecosystem? You learn to live a little slower and get by on the impeccable hospitality of the locals, in Eva’s experience. She has spent most of the first two months camping or renting basic guest rooms from local goat-herder families in Socotra’s less-populated rural villages.
“Life on Socotra is slow,” she explained. “I spend most days outside reading a book, writing in my journal or hiking in the mountains.”
There are more comfortable accommodations available in the capital, Hadibu. Eva decided against the capital’s hotels, however. She returns there for laundry and Wi-Fi and to charge her devices.
“Hadibu is chaotic and noisy,” Eva explains. “I prefer to be out in nature and living alongside rural communities, who have been kind enough to welcome me into their homes.”
Because Socotra is so remote and lacks a traditional tourist infrastructure, it’s very expensive to travel and stay there. Eva has kept costs down thanks to the code of hospitality that rules the island.
“There’s a code of hospitality in Socotra called Karam,” she explains. “It dictates that guests should be welcomed unconditionally, so traditional hosts are very reluctant to take money from guests.”
Eva has insisted that her hosts take something from her, offering $150 to $200 per month to cover her food and accommodations.
While the rest of the world is social distancing, life on Socotra is going on as normal. “There are no social distancing or lockdown measures on Socotra. We are free to visit friends and move around as we please,” Eva noted. “It’s as if we’re in a parallel universe.”
It hasn’t all been positive, however. Eva had to visit a hospital in Hadibo twice. One time, she got a bad cut on her leg during a hike. The second time, she was experiencing heatstroke and viral infection.
“I’ve been very impressed with the professional care offered by the hospital staff on Socotra,” she noted.
Eva’s also missing her loved ones. “The Wi-Fi isn’t strong enough for Skype or FaceTime, and power cuts are common,” she says. “I have to make do with just an ordinary telephone call whenever I have signal. I miss them all dearly.”
There are also vocal critics of Eva’s who don’t support her idea to stay on a vulnerable island during a pandemic. In response to the CNN article, #Respect_Socotra began circulating to express the perceived danger Eva and those like her pose to the island community. She addressed these criticisms in an Instagram post.
“Thank you to everyone who has been so concerned about my stay on the island. 🙏 #Respect_Socotra, You have given me a new perspective and I apologize if I sent the wrong message before,” she wrote in her update.
“Things are different from what they were before. My 1st month here was a ‘honeymoon period’, and the island felt very much sealed … due to restricted traffic. But, times change. Currently, many cases are being reported in mainland Yemen, and with some boat traffic to the island, not all of it properly quarantined (as it seems), locals have concerns. People (not tourists) have continued to arrive on Socotra.”
“People are on alert, and wary that there is a possibility that the virus will eventually make it here, whether that’s tomorrow or in a year from now,” she continued.
“Before, it felt safe to travel to different places around the island, but that’s no longer the case. Over the last 3 weeks, I’ve been spending the majority of my time in a family home in one village and intend to keep it this way.”
“According to health professionals, the island is free of [the virus], and while people want to trust them, it’s hard to know for sure without proper testing facilities. So in the village, Shibhan, they’re starting to take measures, just in case. Getting ready for the future.”
“My host is trying to change the greeting habits in the village (from a handshake and a kiss to a wave), which isn’t easy but as he says, ‘we’ve got to start somewhere’. We started sewing face masks,” she noted.
“From the perspective of time, given the knowledge I have now about the spread and nature of the virus, would I have made the decision to come here in the first place? No. My intention was never to encourage active travel to remote places during a [global health crisis]. Rather, I wanted to share the beauty of a place I was already in, a place that’s little-known and needs to be protected.”
“Remote places and populations are at a higher risk from the virus – in part because of limited healthcare infrastructure. Leaving? Hopefully. It’s a work in progress.”
Eva hopes to give back to Socotra. She encouraged followers to donate to Mona Relief, a local NGO working to bring basic necessities to people in Yemen. She also hopes to leverage her social media following to provide computers for a girls school in Hadibo, as well as set up a crowdfunding project to help the island deal with its severe waste management problem.
“I’ve learned so much from this beautiful island these past two months,” says Eva. “Now I’d like to give something back.”