Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Time traveling. Memories of the Maldives.

Time traveling. Memories of the Maldives.
Recently, a very good friend of mine took his girlfriend to the Maldives for what was supposed to be a birthday vacation. Little did she know that along with his boardshorts and camera, JunRey had also packed an engagement ring. So yeah, they're affianced! (JunRey: Congratulations to both you and Tin!)
His photos and subsequent email about it brought back the time, over a decade ago, when my family lived in the Maldives for a month. My dad was there working closely with the Maldivian government for the summer and we flew down to be him in the middle month. Good times.
On the globe, the tiny islands comprise The Maldives can be easily overlooked and mistaken for dust spots. For whatever they may lack in size, the atoll more than makes up for it with the sheer unspoiled beauty of its land.

To be slightly technical, The Maldives are situated almost below Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Once there, all the geographical facts seem to melt away and one draws the conclusion that this is not a place on earth. It is a bit of paradise found on some other-worldly plane where spectacular sunsets tint beach-goers in arms of golden fire.

Our plane touched down on Hulule International Airport. Actually, the whole island is the airport, and the country’s only link with the outside world. To get from island to island, commission a dhoni (do-knee) – the traditional Maldivian sailing boat. We got one to take us from the airport to Male, the island that would serve as our home for most of the next month.

Male (Ma-Leh) is also the capital of the Maldives. You can literally walk around the island in an hour. Belying its diminutive stature, the city is a thriving center of culture and commerce. Stores selling everything from batik beachwear to carved wooden sailboats to dried shark's jaws litter the area. Aside from being a major trading center, the capital is also the home of the intellectual elite as well as the seat of the government. My personal favorite section of the city was the docks right across the marketplace. It wasn’t uncommon to see a fisherman pull up to the pier, drag a 15 foot blue marlin across the sand towards the wet market. And if you dropped bits of bread into the water there, reef fish would come up to the surface for a snack.

In Male, strict codes of conduct are observed. Women, even tourists, may not wear translucent outfits, short shorts and anything else deemed indecent by these Islamic people. It is also virtually impossible to find meat on the island, so expect a lot of chicken and seafood. (If you want meat, wait ‘til you get to the resorts.)

Life on Male was simple – we’d get up in the morning and do our chores, walk to the video store to rent maybe 3 or 4 movies, then watch them throughout the course of the day. We had nearly daily trips to the market to buy fresh fish for our meals. I became hooked on British Pop/Teen culture because those were the only available teen magazines on the island. I had never seen an episode of Neighbors or heard a single Danni Minogue song… but I knew all about them. Haha.
It was a very special situation to be in. We weren’t technically tourists… but neither were we residents. And because of that I was able to experience parts of both types of life in the Maldives. We lived on the capital and had a daily schedule but we also went off to check out the many resorts on the other islands. Sometimes we would spend a few days at one resort. Other times we would just take a dhoni out for the day and come back that same night… depending on whether my dad was going to be with us or not or if he was off on some boat doing research work.

The resort system of The Maldives is rather simple: each island is a resort in itself. They vary in size and price so ask around (most Maldivians in the tourist trade speak English so this won't be a problem). One of the more popular resorts is Club Med which is also, incidentally, one of the pricier places. Like Club Med, the more expensive resorts have freshwater pools, gyms and tennis courts. Others have a more laidback and idyllic allure.

It hardly matters where you go because all over any of the inhabited atolls, there is an abundance of beauty. Rarely being more than six feet above sea level, the coral based islands are home to all kinds of tropical fish, many of which are so used to human contact that they will wait in the shallows for bread in the morning. The water is so clear that, often, we did not need goggles or a mask to see the flitting rainbow-hued fish swim by. Experienced scuba-drivers can even arrange for a dive trip into some of this world’s least explored atoll reefs.
I distinctly remember one morning we were fish-feeding in thigh deep water when a 2 foot black tip reef shark came swimming up to me. I stood still, not sure if I should even bother trying to outrun a shark. It made lazy figure eights around my legs and then swam away. I will NEVER in my life forget that.

Once, on the way back to Male – which I had started thinking of as ‘home’ – a dolphin swam up to the boat. It kept abreast of us, surfacing once. It was my first wild dolphin sighting and I don’t think anyone who has never seen a wild dolphin will ever truly grasp how beautiful that moment was.
I have heard that since our time there, the Maldives’ tourism industry has boomed. More posh resorts have opened. Dive tours are now common as opposed to rare. And even surfers have found their way to the atolls.

So yeah, of all the countries Jun and Tin have been to together, he couldn't have picked a better place to pop the question. Again, congratulations to you two!
Image hosted by Photo taken by Jun Rey.


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