Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Maldivian Island Experience

After the Jones family flew back to Indonesia to begin their return to America, we settled back into life in Colombo.  As we did so, we began planning our next trip – which would also be our first trip out of Sri Lanka since we arrived.  For this journey we were headed to The Maldives.

Now, before I regale you with tales of exotic cuisines and turquoise waters, let me tell you a little bit about the Maldives that you may not already know.  It’s an incredibly fascinating nation, aside from its fantasy vacation destination reputation.  First of all, located just southwest of Sri Lanka, the entire nation is made up of about 1,200 different islands, spread out across the Indian Ocean in 26 Atolls (island groups) straddling the Equator; most of the islands lie above, while just a few small groups lie below.  The entire country only has about 380,000 residents and those residents only occupy about 200 islands of the whole archipelago.  Resorts occupy about 100 more of the islands, while the rest are either uninhabited or used for agriculture.  Each resort island is occupied by a single resort, so you are likely to remain on that island (usually happily so) for the entirety of your stay in the Maldives.

The politics of the Maldives have an incredibly complicated and divisive history.  It's probably worth its own post, honestly.  There's no short way to explain it.  The last 10 years have been rife with conflict and transition, while just the last 2 years or so have been particularly volatile.  Not to mention the impending rising sea levels around the lowest lying country in the world.  All of this has left the people of the Maldives in a tough spot.  It's a beautiful place, but like most beautiful things, it's incredibly complicated as well. 

Until about 5 or 6 years ago, tourists were only permitted access to the resort islands.  Admittance to the residential islands was strongly prohibited.  The Maldives is the only other nation in the world, besides Saudi Arabia, with a 100% Muslim population among its residents.  Because of the restrictions Muslim culture places on things like alcohol consumption, exposure of skin and public displays of affection, the restriction from the residential islands was probably for everyone’s benefit.  This meant a lot fewer shenanigans for tourists to find themselves embroiled in if they kept their cocktail drinking tanning sessions contained to the resort islands, which are not required to follow these restrictions.  However, several years ago that all changed when the government lifted the ban on tourists in residential areas.  Now, locals have AirBnB guesthouse setups where backpackers and culture seeking tourists can get a true local experience.  Trip takers can stay on the residential islands, in residences rented by locals and be fed local cuisine prepared by people who have likely never left their atoll. 

To be honest, here is where I depart a little from most people in the preferred vacation department.  Don't get me wrong, the idea of coming to The Maldives did appeal to me.  I didn’t grow up with a lot of vacation experiences and I’ve never been anywhere “exotic” and tropical like that before, so from a pure position of curiosity I was intrigued to go.  Beyond that, though, beach/resort vacations have never really been my thing.  We didn’t take a lot of vacations when I was a kid.  The one vacation we took (and still religiously take) is my extended family’s 2 week rustic camping trip in the middle of the Adirondack park.  It’s just 30 of my closest relatives, a city of tents and all the food and supplies we bring with us.  That’s my idea of a vacation – no waiters and no frills, just the peaceful quiet of wind rustled trees and sweet, fresh mountain air.

With this in mind, resorts and beaches just don’t hold a candle to this for me.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a huge fan of the beach and I am, at my core, a fresh water fish.  So, if I am going to travel abroad, I’m not usually looking for 5-star service and luxury accomodations – peeing in a freshly cleaned outhouse is a luxury on my usual family vacation.  If I go to a new place, I really want to see it – explore it.  I want to eat local cuisine and sit in divey local spots not meant for tourists.  I want to really be in that space and experience it, at least in part, as the locals do.  So, this latter description of Maldivian tourism, including guesthouses and locally caught grilled fish sounded perfect to me.  However, this is not the trip we ended up planning for our Maldivian experience and that turned out to be A-OK too.

For this trip, Ryan decided that he wanted to fly in a few days ahead of us so he could meet with some people and get around a bit.  This also meant my very first solo international plane trip with the kiddos!  When you travel to the Maldives, you fly into the nation’s capital Male (pronounced Mah-Lay).  Male is one of the most densely populated islands in the world, with every square meter of its 5.8 square kilometers (about 2.2 miles) populated by about 1/3 of the Maldivian population, plus all the tourists coming in to visit.  Male is a dense, intricate and fascinating little city that a lot of people probably don’t get to fully experience.  It seems like a lot of people probably come for a few hours, either on a resort excursion or while waiting for their flight, but the majority of people don’t stay overnight or for any number of days.  The airport is on a separate island called Hulhule, just a 5 minute ferry ride away.  The totality of Male includes its central island, the airport island, and 2 other small islands close by. 

Ryan flew into Male about 3 days ahead of us for some FAO related meetings.  During one of those meetings, he got a tour of the main airport, which was a thrill for my husband who has been missing the cockpit quite a bit lately.  They even took him up into the tower, and he is of the opinion that it has to be one of the greatest control tower views in the world.  He also got to walk inside  Male’s old Friday Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the basis of its architecture and unique coral-brick construction material.  This mosque, built in 1658, is sometimes open to respectfully-dressed foreign visitors, but technically, only with permission from the Maldivian government's Islamic Council. However, representatives or staff from the Council are generally on the premises, so Ryan was able to charm his way in with lots of respectful smiling and "Assalaam Alaikums."

Fast forward a few more days, to when the kids and I prepared to meet Ryan in the Maldives.  Our flight was in the late afternoon, so that gave me all day to make sure we had everything we would need, get the kids fed, and get to the airport on time.  The flight to Male is about 1 hour, which felt like a totally manageable amount of time for my first international trip.  Once we were through the ticket and immigration lines, I have to admit, it felt a heck of a lot easier than I imagined.  We got through without a hitch and got on the plane, where the kids promptly fell asleep, having both missed their naptimes. 

Once we were airborne, I was surprised to find that they don’t do the beverage service quite the same here as in America – it is way better!  Even though it was only an hour flight, the flight attendants came around and brought everyone mango juice boxes and mini spicy curry and sambol sandwiches.  We were up and down before I even knew we had left the country.  Once we landed, the kids and I easily collected our luggage, passed through customs and met Ryan on the outside of the airport, where we were led by a hotel representative to a ferry for Male proper.  Away we went!

We were visiting The Maldives in July, which is actually “the low season” for tourism.  This is because May to November is also monsoon season.  This doesn’t mean that there is constant torrential weather, but it does mean that storms can come in and out at any time.  On the boat ride over to Male proper, we could definitely tell a storm was a brewing – a grey sky covered the rocky, turquoise waters between the island that holds the international airport and the main island.  Storm or not, I was excited to see Male, especially after Ryan had spent the last 3 days talking about how fascinating it was.

We jumped off the ferry, where we were met by a car to take us and our luggage to the hotel.  Ryan said this seemed a little silly, since the hotel was only 2 blocks away, but once we started driving I realized why it was a smart idea.  The streets were all cobblestone (making luggage dragging impossible) and packed with pedestrians, a few cars, and thousands of small motorcycles and scooters.  When they say the island is densely populated, they weren’t joking! 
The driver got us into the narrow alley where our hotel was located and we quickly disembarked, before the traffic behind us (stopped until we unloaded) turned against us.  We dropped off our bags, freshened up and got right back out onto the street to walk around.  By this point it was after 6:30, so we were ready to find some dinner.  Ryan toured us through some of the side streets, walking us by the old Friday Mosque and through the center of the city, while he talked about how the streets really come to life at night. 

We made our way to a great Thai restaurant for dinner, which was a relief to me not having had a good Thai meal in quite some time.  Ryan had tried this place for a previous meal, so vouched for its quality – and he was right, it was great!  Oddly, we were the only patrons in the place when we sat down around 7 pm.  What we tend to forget is most people in South Asia eat on a much later schedule than we do, not coming to dinner until after 8 a lot of the time.  What is a semi-late dinner time for many Americans is the early bird hour for most South Asians.  The staff were so happy to have us, though, paying a lot of attention to the kiddos – as they have already become accustomed.  We enjoyed a great meal, then wandered the long way back to the hotel through the bustling streets of Male.  I’ve never seen so many active motorcycles in my life and there were people out everywhere, walking around and taking in the nightlife.  We made our way back for the kiddos to get into bed, while Ryan and I made a plan for the following day.

So many bananas at the market!!
The fresh produce always looks amazing
The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel buffet where we met an awesome couple from the States, who were in a later stage of a lifestyle much like ours.  He was retired from a military career that took his family all over the world.  They had lots of stories and advice to share, as well as a sincere grandparent interest in our kiddos.  It was one of those travel interactions you always hope to have after which you wish you had exchanged information – which we did, so record a win for us! 

We left breakfast to walk around Male in the daylight, as we still had a few hours to kill before the ferry to the island we’d be staying on for the rest of the week.  We made our way to the local fish and produce market.  It was quite an extensive venue with vendors selling beautiful looking produce and freshly caught and cleaned fish.  The fish market had a long line of men at tables gutting and cleaning the fish that had just come in from the boats - it was quite an operation. 

Another thing that you could find in ample supply was betel leaf (pictured above).  Betel leaf, or paan when mixed with spices, sugar, and shredded coconut, is South Asia's answer to chewing tobacco.   Vendors line the leaves with lime, sprinkle with tobacco and Areca nuts, then fold them into pouches to be chewed.  Sometimes people add mint, cardamom, or saffron to individualize their flavor.  Walking through most of South Asia, you might see blood red splashes on the sidewalk, leading you to fear the worst has happened recently.  Not to fear, this is just the color the betel leaf  juice produces and is then spat all over the roadways and sidewalks as they are consumed.  Many believe there are numerous health benefits to chewing betel leaf; however, tooth decay and oral cancer are also common problems that come along with it as well.  You will often know a paan chewer by his/her red stained teeth, of which he/she may be absent a few. 

We finished our market tour through the dried fish stalls, which have rows upon rows of dried fish of all varieties and sizes.  The air takes on the salty, fishy smell of dehydrated fish, which can be a bit overwhelming after a while.  We left the markets to walk to another hotel with a beautiful view of the Male cityscape.  It was quite warm that morning and it didn’t take long for the kids to get worn out from the heat and humidity, so we wandered back to the hotel where they could chill (literally) for a bit before we caught our ferry to Kurumba.

For the rest of our stay, we decided on a resort called Kurumba on the island of Vihamanaafushi, about a 10 minute boat ride from Male.  We were picked up by a speed boat, our bags were loaded and we were directed into a cabin area to be seated.  There were cushy leather couch seats, cool washcloths for our faces and mini water bottles to drink on our way over to the island.  Rough waters made for a bumpy, albeit short ride.  We disembarked and prepared for our first ever island resort experience.  I was definitely intrigued, the place looked gorgeous already.
We walked down the dock, where along the way we spotted small sharks swimming around the crystal clear water.  Making our way inside, we handed over our passports in exchange for some freshly made coconut ice cream.  It was explained to us that Kurumba actually means “young coconut” in Dhivehi, the local language.  The island was a private coconut plantation before the resort was built and opened in 1972, the first private resort ever opened in the Maldives.  The ice cream was amazing – we craved it, and indulged in it, several times during our stay. 

It took a little while for our room to be ready, so we were escorted to the buffet for some lunch while we waited.  Eventually we got to our room, which was a villa style setup including a back entrance leading to a sandy backyard and the ocean, just a few yards away.  Maybe I could get used to resort vacation life…

Between our morning walk and the excitement of getting over to the island, the kids were ready for a nap.  They laid down while Ryan and I explored our backyard setup.  I kicked back in a hammock where I could read through the hotel's welcome guidebook (my favorite activity in ANY hotel, anywhere, even if the stay is just overnight).  Ryan wandered down to the beach and promptly got right into the ocean.  The hotel loaned us some complimentary snorkel gear, which thrilled Ryan to no end.  Kurumba is one of the only resort islands where you can snorkel the entire 360 degrees of the island – there was a lot to see!

One of the most exciting amenities of the resort, for all of us really, was The Kids Club.  We had never stayed anywhere that had something that sounded so amazing.  In this fairytale land, we could drop off the kiddos for the entire day – 9-6, for free, where they will be entertained with hourly activities and a huge clubhouse full of toys, art supplies and fun.  We barely saw Kiddo the whole time we were there.  We took her over to the Kid's Club right when she woke up from her nap and she stayed until they closed at 6.  Unfortunately, Little Boy was too small to be left all day.  If he came to Kids Club, one of us had to be with him or we had to hire a babysitter to watch him while he was in there.  That was a little bit of a bummer, but we weren’t in a place to complain about anything, so we made it work.  Ryan and I took turns over the course of our time in Kurumba doing our own activities, while Griffin either played at Kids Club or napped in the room.  He was still napping twice a day at the time, so we were always moving between the room, the beach, Kid's Club, meals and back around again. 
I won’t give you a daily breakdown of our time in Kurumba, but instead will summarize it for you more generally.  It was like summer camp for all of us.  There was a schedule of activities every day, plenty of beautiful places to relax/read/write/swim, and a team of helpful, friendly staff members who became such good friends to us.  We actually spent a fair amount of time just chatting with the staff members with whom we regularly interacted.  For instance, we got to know our housekeeper, who told us that his wife and kids lived in another  atoll and that he really only gets to seem them every 6 months or so.  The rest of the time, he lives at the resort and works, which is a pretty common tale for almost everyone who works at Kurumba.  Almost everyone on the staff was either Maldivian or from Bangladesh.  It was pretty eye opening to hear a lot of their stories.   

Ryan spent a LOT of his time snorkeling and ended up seeing a little bit of everything, from masses of tropical fish, some octopus, crabs, blacktip sharks, and sea turtles.  He told me it really reminded him of his time in Florida, where the warm sea wraps you up like a warm hug.  That made me smile.  I also went snorkeling a few times myself.  I’ll admit, it was a little scary out there by myself, among the sea creatures and corals.  I always had this feeling like I was going to end up
somewhere I shouldn’t be or in contact with something that might bite or sting me.  It was exhilarating and beautiful!

Theweather was a mixed bag while we
were there, for which the staff kept needlessly apologizing.  I’d say it rained at some point almost every day – I think we had one rain free day.  But, I felt the same way about that in the Maldives as I did at any summer camp I've ever been to: there is so much merit to be found in the restful calm of a rainy day.  I would sit on the back porch of our villa, while Little Boy slept, writing or reading while the rain poured around me.  It was so relaxing and refreshing.  Sometimes on vacation, it’s easy to feel like you have to fill every second with some kind of activity – I’m guilty of this, for sure.  But, the rain forced me to chill out and take some time to enjoy the quiet.  It reminded me of rainy days at Tanager Lodge, when we would all hang out on Shop Porch or in South Cottage.  Some of my favorite moments came from those rainy days when we were all just hanging out together, singing, chatting, working on projects and laughing with each other.  Rainy days, even on vacation, are often a blessing in disguise.

Ryan and I agreed that we would each get one extra solo excursion during our stay – he chose to go on a surf trip while I chose a morning at the spa.  Otherwise, we spent a leisurely 5 days taking beach walks, snorkeling, swimming and playing together.  Kiddo and Little Boy spent a lot of time playing on the beach near our villa.  It was so beautiful to watch them take care of each other and laugh together as they played in the sand.  Savannah probably had the most fun out of all of us – she did art projects, made friends with Ms. Sha and Ms. Aida, went to the movies, and pretty much lived at Kid’s Club.  One night they even babysat for us while Ryan and I had a date night – we had dinner at one of the resort’s 7 ethnic restaurants (we had East Asian cuisine that night), followed by cocktails, hookah and live music at the beach bar. 

By the end of our stay, I was definitely ready to go home.  You can only stay at a resort for so long, no matter how big it is, before you start to get a little bored of the same places and things every day.  Despite this, I found it oddly difficult to leave.  As we said goodbye to Ms. Sha and Ms. Aida in Kid’s Club, I got a little sad – in part because Kiddo had such a blast and was sad to leave and also because they had been so sweet to her and all of us.  Ms. Sha, a young girl from India, even bought the kids gifts from the souvenir shop on our way out – a starfish necklace for Kiddo as well as huge sea turtle and manta ray stuffed animals for each of them.  We were shocked, but not surprised – they were that sweet to the kids.

Ryan left a few hours before me and the kids, since we originally flew in on different flights.  Therefore, I had a few more hours to luxuriate in Kurumba’s offerings, which only made me realize that I really had done everything I could have done while we were there.  Even so, as we stood on the dock waiting for our boat to arrive, part of me wished that we could stay one more night – even though I had no idea what I would do with that time.  There is only one island on the planet that I can vacation on for a week or more and not get bored or tired of it and that is located in the Adirondack Park in Upstate New York.  I knew I was ready to go home, but still felt sad as we sped away on the boat. 

The kids and I checked into the airport pretty easily, having no trouble dropping bags, getting tickets and making it through emigration.  After grabbing some bites and a few postcards and magnets, we made our way to the gate.  The kids slept on the hour long flight back to Colombo – Griffin on my lap, as this was the last trip we would fly with him when he was still a free ticket.  I didn’t realize that at the time, but I do remember thinking I was so ready for him to have his own seat. 

Reality never hits so hard as in the hours that follow a vacation like the one we had.  Once we were in the cab, already reminiscing about our time, I realized I had left my (very expensive) retainer on the airplane home.  I had taken Griffin to the bathroom toward the end of the flight to change him, having left my retainer on the tray my snack was delivered on.  Because the tray was gone when I got back, I didn’t even think about it until I was in the cab on the way home.  I feverishly called the airport trying to get in touch with the airline, knowing it was likely a hopeless cause.  However, I noticed that the flight attendants don’t trash the trays, they slide them into a cart that is wheeled to the back of the plane and then unloaded.  My hope was that they could just find the cart and then find the tray.  But trying to explain these details to a Sri Lankan airport employee at 10 PM, when most flights are done for the day was more fruitless than I had imagined.  It's hard enough trying to order pizza on a Friday night with the language/accent barrier, so the details of this situation was on a whole other level.  After I thought I communicated the problem, they promised to send someone to check and advised me to call back in the morning.  I went to bed feeling dubious.

When I called back in the morning, no one had any idea who I was or what I was talking about.  Which is about what I expected, but it was a longshot that was worth a chance.  Although I was disappointed and frustrated that I lost an expensive orthodontic piece, I didn't want that to be the last experience I took away from the entire trip.  I began sorting though our things, to start the laundry and unpacking process, when I stumbled upon a painting I had done in one of my afternoons alone and away from the room.  I attended a guided painting workshop where I painted a Maldivian scene.  It made me smile and reminded me of the fun and beauty we experienced during our week in the Maldives.  I leaned the painting up in the dining room where I would see it  every day and remind me of the best parts of our first out of country trip.  It wasn't the kind of island adventure I usually crave, but it was a pretty amazing week nonetheless.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy your blogs, everytime you post it's like you take me to where you were and the pictures always gives us enough to understand and maybe imagine what it's like ❤️❤️❤️