Countdown to Paradise
A Visit to The Maldives
These days, we can only scratch our travel yearnings vicariously, perhaps by flipping through National Geographic or pining over old Instagram posts. Gone are the days of locking in travel plans and counting down the days until our passport is stamped, marking our entry into a new country. For now, we must default to armchair travel, as underwhelming and imperfect as it may be.
Fortunately for me, I was able to take a trip that was satisfying enough to tide me over through the pandemic. In November 2019, I flew from Boston to Doha, Qatar, to Male in the Maldives to begin a seven-day voyage through the islands. The Maldives is a place that conjured up visions for me of bungalows perched above crystal-clear cerulean water. Truth be told, it’s at least as beautiful as I imagined.
The Maldives came to my attention when I watched the documentary “The Island President.” Released in 2011, it is about then-President Mohamed Nasheed, who raised the alarm that his country will be destroyed in a matter of decades. He was deposed in what he characterized as a coup shortly after the movie was released. His presidency lasted over three years, but the documentary immortalized the single biggest challenge facing the country — this nation of 1190 islands in the north-central Indian Ocean is sitting, on average, about 4 feet above sea level. It has a population of about 540,000 according to WorldPopulationReview.com. According to a 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, it is projected that nearly the entire country will be destroyed by rising sea levels by the middle of this century.
Despite this less-then-optimistic outlook, the picture-perfect setting inspires romantic getaways and far-flung vacation fantasies. It’s also a destination for spotting whale sharks and long-distance ocean swimming (did you know that was a hobby?). While New Englanders are fortunate to be within relatively short flying distance of the Yucatan or the Bahamas, the Maldives, with its chain of atolls, beckons like a South Asian Shangri-La. It’s a destination you must really want to visit as it requires 20-plus hours of flight time crossing 10 time zones. I was feeling inspired by “The Last Lecture,” a 2008 book about achieving childhood dreams by Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch. When I was younger, I wanted to be a marine biologist, so this trip would enable me in some way to experience a life lived at sea, at least for a short time.
There are travel companies that readily accommodate solo traveling, so I went with G Adventures and purchased their seven-day cruise.
The vacation started on a Sunday in November when I landed in Male, the capital, and was greeted by Riz, G Adventures’ CEO, or “chief experience officer.” I was to be one of four passengers. The others were Susann and Mahdi, a couple in their 30s from Frankfurt, Germany, and Anna, a Russian expat also living and working in Germany. Our bags were collected and transported to the dock, a short walk from the airport, before being shuttled to Gulfaam, our home for the next week.
Gulfaam, which gets its name from a type of monsoon, is a “dhoni” with three decks — four two-bedrooms suites below, living/dining/kitchen areas on the main level, and an observation deck above. Dhoni boats, which date back to the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians, are shaped to allow for sailing in shallow water. Historically, they were sailboats, but now they are outfitted with motors that allow for an average travel speed of just over 9 mph.
By the time we set sail, it was early afternoon. The low skyline of Male faded away as we headed toward Kudhi Boli, our first destination. Along the way we stopped for our first snorkel, a teaser for the adventures that awaited us.
The first day provided a good indication of what the remainder of the trip would look like. And while each day offered its own unique experiences, there was a common rhythm. Being so close to the equator, the country consistently gets 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Our daily routine adhered to a simple schedule — a bell rang for meals at 7:30 a.m., 12:30 lunch, and 7:30 p.m. After a period of digestion following breakfast and lunch, we snorkeled in different reef systems. Riz kept us in suspense ahead of each day’s foray, taking us to different reefs with their own unique features. One day we visited a feeding ground for sea turtles, another day a shipwreck, and another was spent swimming and beachcombing on a slip of a deserted island. At dusk, we typically relaxed and talked, former strangers from different lands learning about each other’s lives and remarking on the happy convergence that led us to intersect thousands of miles from our homes.
On the boat, with no internet access, time moved at a different speed and was measured in a different way. Instead of watches, we marked its passage with a bunch of bananas, fully green at the start of our trip and ripe at the end.
Our trip took us as far south as Fenbo Finolhu and Fulidhoo, two islands without resorts and inhabited only by locals. On Fenbo, a mosque with a tall minaret stood sentinel, from which evening prayers were called out as fruit bats glided by. We passed through narrow streets and admired the banyan trees, making knots out of their draping tendrils, an old tradition said to make wishes come true. We smiled at passing children but were advised not to take their pictures. The walk took us past many coconut trees. When a child is born, a coconut tree is planted because it will provide essential food and water to sustain a person. We would also learn later about “bikini beach,” a screened-in area that allows minimally clad tourists to sunbathe without offending the island’s Muslim community.
The primary reason for going on this trip was to snorkel to my heart’s content. The sights below the ocean’s surface were magical, with innumerable combinations of vibrant colors and patterns. We were in the company of groupers, grunts, wrasses, angelfish, butterfly fish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, triggerfish, damselfish, clown fish, soldierfish, puffer fish, spiny lobsters and so many more. And as if that wasn’t enough, we swam with sea turtles, went face to face with a moray eel, and even caught sight of a clown fish, aka Nemo, swimming through undulating purple anemone. One of my personal favorites to spot were the giant clams, which I had never seen before. The shells of these bivalves are wedged into the reefs, but their protruding fleshy lips in colors of purple, blue, green and orange hypnotize the eyes with their vibrancy.
To end the trip with a glorious exclamation point, eagle-eyed Riz spotted a curious disturbance in the water, indicating the presence of manta rays. We quickly changed back into our bathing suits and jumped in for our last dive. It was an otherworldly experience, watching their wide mouths remain open while their wings gracefully glided dreamlike through the water.
The marine life was a sight to behold, but also delicious. The Maldivian and Bangladeshi crew, Captain Andino, Sujon (the cook), Messah (the waiter) and Ruhul (the cabin attendant) made sure we were kept safe, pampered and well fed. As we went from one destination to the next, the crew, with help from our fellow passenger Mahdi, line-fished off the boat. On one occasion they caught a barracuda, red snapper and a moray eel (we did not eat the eel). The two most important staples of the Maldivian diet are tuna and rice. Tuna is bountiful and is eaten at almost every meal. We had it smoked and fresh, in pasta, and served as ceviche. A traditional Maldivian breakfast called mas huni is made with tuna, freshly grated coconut, onion, lime, tomato, chile, cabbage leaf, and a simple seasoning of salt and pepper.
I could have eaten it every day. Sujon worked miracles in a small kitchen and prepared meals fit for a royal feast three times a day. Not surprisingly, we quickly became attached to his cooking skills and good humor.
There was plenty of time in between eating, snorkeling and sleeping for Susann, Mahdi, Anna, Riz and me to find friendship. We experienced many “firsts” together. We saw a moon halo, watched a waterspout in the distance, and swam in shark-infested water. We faced the unknown and unfamiliar. I may have even instigated a dare to dive off the top deck of the boat, but I’m still waiting for the others to join me.