By Richard Zack Taylor
There are no dogs in the Republic of Maldives.
Considered unclean by the conservative Islamic government, nary a canine may be found in this cluster of a thousand or more islands on the Indian Ocean a few inches to the left of Sri Lanka on the map.
Having read this on the plane before my first visit, I was a wee bit startled to be greeted at the airport door by a snarling, sniffing German Shepherd leashed to a similarly snarling and well-armed customs cop.
At this point, travelers carrying any substances stronger than breath mints might have cause for alarm, for the Maldives holds drugs and alcohol in esteem somewhat equal to Man’s Best Friend.
The selection at the new duty-free liquor store at my point of departure was excellent, however, so I had issues. Fortunately, a diplomatic passport softening in my sweaty palm mitigated the obligatory baggage X-ray, and certain public embarrassment.
Fang glared disapprovingly as I walked past. “If you can stay, so can Mr. Grey Goose,” I told him.
Fortunately for we who fancy a drop, such smuggling is not strictly necessary once the sanctuary of a resort is reached. Only problem is you have to get to there first.
Even if I could have afforded one of those cool pontoon planes, first I had to get across the bay from the tiny airport island to the not-quite-so-tiny capital island and a hotel room. Only problems were that a) it was two in the morning and b) it was raining in sheets.
No choice, then, than to board a dhoni, the local vessel of choice, for a ride of a mile across a choppy channel to a bed that would afford us a few hours sleep till the 9 o’clock boat to our holiday paradise.
The dhoni is an interesting boat. Its deep keel is decorated with a high curving bowsprit with a matching design to stern, giving it the distinct look of a Viking ship about 40 feet long, with benches lining each gunwale. If Leif Erickson could make it to America, I thought, this should get us across the harbor, inclement weather notwithstanding.
Piloting the vessel, the crew smoked and chatted as the skipper effortlessly navigated with the huge tiller with his knee. His complete ease and confidence made me, who grew up around boats constantly, realize that save for eating, sleeping, and making little Maldivians, these people live on the water. In a country consisting exclusively of tiny atolls, these islanders are at once freed and imprisoned by the sea.
Taxi drivers the world over tend to talk their fares’ ears off about politics and current events, but on my ride to the hotel, our cabbie’s complete silence supplied a poignant overview of the local political situation. Despite the late hour, he went to extreme lengths to avoid any figure of authority, which became almost comic considering the ubiquitous roadblocks.
Rather than approach one, the driver made quick turn into small alleys, shooting frequent furtive glances behind. Passing a vehicle with “Maldives Civil Order Patrol” stenciled on the side nearly induced the poor bugger into apoplexy, prompting such extensive detouring that the prospect of actually arriving at the hotel seemed dim at best.
Grey spitting skies greeted us next morning we boarded a larger dhoni, this time fiberglass, with a similar bench setup on the cabin. After ninety soggy minutes we arrived at our circular paradise. As I penciled my wife and I in as Fully Independent Travelers), or, somewhat appropriately, FITs.
We FITs were set apart from the various tour groups who make up nearly all of the resort’s clientele. Disapproving stares abounded. The obligatory too-sweet welcoming drink accompanied by some inquisition about just what we thought we were doing there outside of a tour group. Finally we were led us to a waterfront bungalow, on a sandy lagoon rather than the sea proper, but nonetheless idyllic enough.
I’ve never been gushy for beautiful beaches, this one really was breathtaking. The water is ice-blue and so transparent that even from the dock, hundreds of fish are clearly visible; all their colors, stripes, and patterns. The soft, creamy sand rose to give way to a verdant canopy of coconut palms. Giant bats glided majestically about as thousands of songbirds in the trees chirped a cacophonous symphony.
All this beauty gives one an appetite. At lunch, the hotel management was quick set about quashing any feeling of FIT empowerment we may have been entertaining. “Where shall we sit?” we asked the host somewhat naively as we entered the barn-like dining room. “How about over th . . .”
“Nationality?” he interrupted.
“What does that have to do with where we sit?” Ignoring the question, he turned his back and started walking. It was follow or go hungry.
“Okay . . . American,” I said trotting briskly after him. “. . . but what’s that’s got to do with anything . . .” but it was too late. Catching up, we passed one group chattering in Japanese, another in German, and finally to some east Londoners gabbing in a thick brogue. We looked at each other in mutual comprehension. Anglophone section. Indeed, guests were feasting happily all around us, unfazed at being herded into such linguistic pens.
Intermittent clear weather allowed for daily complementary dhoni-rides to the house reef to snorkel. Compared to the small reefs we had previously combed, these formations teemed with life and dazzling blues. One can’t help reflecting: why are tropical fish so damn colourful? Blue with yellow stripes; red with black tails and fins; pink with polka dots; it goes on and on.
It’s a deeply religious question if you think about it. According to a Swedish folk tale, God was bone tired by the sixth day of Creation. He called in a group of overeager angels and delegated a bit of authority: “I’m having a nap. You do the fish.”
On the reef, huge schools of a single species would suddenly surround you. Others ate off the reef with a distinctly audible crunch. I pondered how fish can taste so good on a diet consisting strictly of reef algae. Carnivores like barracuda eat smaller fish, but what do the smaller fish eat? In the end, every food chain stops at scum. Or so it seems.
I particularly enjoyed the edge of the reef, where the depth dropped perhaps 20 or 30 meters. The water darkened and felt a lot like the middle of the ocean. I looked out for something large and predatory and was rewarded with two manta rays about six feet in diameter, their big concave mouths open as they trolled for an afternoon snack. The majesty of their glide was awe-inspiring; that one passed me then looped around and came back at me slightly unnerving. While they were too funny looking to be truly threatening, that spiked tail seemed awfully large. Time to get back in the boat.
As I sat dripping in the dhoni, I noticed the other snorkelers were divided into two groups. On one side were tattooed Germans and on the other diminutive Japanese. Axis alliance redux. After drying off and stowing my gear, I noticed them all looking out and gesturing at a lime-green snorkel far off on the reef. It dawned on me everybody was long ready to head back in, and that there was only one snorkeler still in the water.
“I think that’s my wife out there,” I said sheepishly. But it was no surprise to me. The woman could out-snorkel Jacques Cousteau, (not that old Jacques would ever mingle with this lot). I figured I had to do something. “Yo, honey! . . . Time to go!” I yelled. But Madame Cousteau would not be rushed.
“Did you see those beautiful, bottle-nosed razor-finned parrotfish?” she beamed as a puddle formed around her on the deck. All that time and expense buying poring over tropical fish books would not be for nought.
“I saw lots of, uh, red ones and some blue ones.”
At dinner, we were led back to our usual table. “You mean we have to sit here again?” I asked incredulously. “House rules,” he replied. Always the rebel, I changed places, moving the setting to the left.
After dinner, I observed our waiter a few tables down flirting in fluent German, a tad inappropriately, with a young fraulein, I wondered about his language skills. English, German, Italian, Japanese, and a little Spanish,” he ticked off. “No French?” I said. Not missing a beat, he parried with “Comment allez-vous messieur-dames?” Pas mal, I thought. That little riff wasn’t even worthy of his list.
Later, it poured rain again. Surrounded by the tourists who had flown a dozen hours to get here, we marvelled at what a gamble it is, notwithstanding cheap package tours, to vacation in the Maldives. No sun, no fun. And during this time of year, a considerable amount of rain falls on the islands. Small wonder then, that the bar was full at 10 on the drizzly morning we arrived.
Speaking of the bar, the bill for the holiday was all inclusive. all-you-can eat is one thing, but all-you-can-drink is a different proposition altogether. From a small but decent quality selection, the sky was the limit. Save for the condition of your head the next day, and your moral fortitude, there are no restrictions.
As a responsible drinker, I had no such problem. A waiter did, however, come up to the bar once as I was waiting there for a round, and ask for two doubles. “Doubles?” I said. “You can do that? Bartender, I want to change my order!”
Eventually, we got some quality beach time on the lagoon in front of our bungalow.
Kicking around the lagoon on air mattresses, we had to keep changing position to keep our books dry. Glancing over to the next bungalow, a fellow guest I recognized by her large cobra snake tattoo all the way around her arm was lying on her stomach in what appeared to be an extreme state of undress. My wife paddled over and whispered, “Did you notice that woman on the beach over is completely naked?”
Like any married man, I naturally responded: “Of course not.” In any case, a small crowd began to gather on the dock, observing her as if she was a razor-backed parrotfish. But before they could break out their Nikons, she scurried away and returned in scant swimwear.
We discussed none of this as we sat across the very woman on our next snorkelling expedition, this time in a much smaller boat that put our little multicultural group into much closer quarters. Basically, everyone was German but us, and that fact didn’t even occur to the rest of them (you would think our lack of tattoos would have given us away!).
After I’d followed a gigantic something-or-other fish around for a while and adjusted my mask enough times I got back on the boat, and a young woman who’d finished first said absently something containing the words; “Gut, nein?” I was shocked at being mistaken for a German by another German from two feet away. She flushed when I told her I couldn’t get beyond counting to ten and ordering a beer in Deutsch and apologized in heavily accented English.
As the afternoon sun danced over the lapping water, I looked again at this girl, I thought of all our cultural differences and all the wars our countries have fought and such. Wherever I’ve lived, people all seem to be, say, 95 per cent alike, yet that five per cent renders our planet perpetually susceptible to periodic cataclysm. Strange world we live in, and beautiful too.
You don’t need to visit the Maldives to know that, but it helps.
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