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Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Magnificent Maldives

I can now die happy.

The Maldives are all that and more. The most AMAZING place I’ve ever been, beach-wise. They are what, in my ‘suspending-non-religious-beliefs-for-just-a-moment’ reality, I hope heaven is like. The Maldives. Yes, they are heaven on earth.

Traveling constantly, seeing new places and things every day, with a never-ending to-do-list of the world map, I wind up having high expectations for a lot of the places I’m going. The last person I met told me about such-and-such a place, the guide book glorifies another nearby place, my best friend’s sister’s mother-in-law’s uncle said I just HAD to hit that local to the other place place. I try, god knows, I try to do all of the “musts” and, lots of times, I’m disappointed. So, going into the Maldives, I had HIGH HIGH hopes. I heard the diving was out-of-this-world, the beaches magnificent, the level of service unmatched, the weather perfect, and the resorts luxurious. All of those things are true. Not half-true, not depends on where you stay true, 100% true. I was blown away. I did it all blindly, my hotel booking, my island, my package – I KNEW NOTHING going into it, except what I was reading online about the country. There’s only one guide book on the Maldives (Lonely Planet and a) it’s hard to find and b) I think Lonely Planet un-user-friendly and prefer Fodor’s) and there little else to go by. So, I spent countless nights awake online, searching websites that had a bit here and a bit there about the islands. From that, I chose Kurumba, the oldest resort in the Maldives, recently renovated, with affordable (and laughable) price points, and a GORGEOUS website. Sounds good.

Oh, man…it was BETTER than good. My villa was bigger than my apartment in the city (not a hard accomplishment, but…), and beautifully decorated. I had an indoor and outdoor shower (which I was obsessed with – I took outdoor showers about 4 times a day), I had a reading nook, I had a canopy bed with chiffon sheets that closed around me when I slept, like a princess’s bedroom (in my mind’s fairy tale). It all opened out onto a porch that came right up to the sand of the beach, the water lapping playfully at my door. I mean….

The Maldives are made up of hundreds of tiny islands, about 140 of those are inhabited by resorts, and another 40 or so, inhabited by a small Maldivian population of 270,000. Outside of the resorts, which must BUY an individual island from the Maldivian government in order to open, the islands of the Maldives are poor, low-functioning islands. The high-low of the Maldives is actually quite disturbing, but most tourists don’t take the time to travel to the actual inhabited islands, they stay at their resort. Shame, as the people are so sweet and friendly, and the crafts are about 1/10th of the price of the hotels. Hehe… Needless to say, I shopped. The main industry is tourism, with two artificial islands recently built to accommodate a Coca-Cola bottling plant and a steel company. Otherwise, there’s no industry in the smallest world capital of Male.

This was my typical day for a week in the Maldives:

7 AM Wake Up. Breakfast at the biggest breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen. Unnecessarily big. Like stupid, too many choices that early in the AM, big. There I would eat an omelette (sometimes veggies, sometimes ham and cheese as a throwback to my previous and, upcoming trip to South America), hash browns (they were like McDonalds hash browns of my childhood and I couldn’t resist though each night I SWORE I wouldn’t have another hash brown but then I would see them, next to the fruit juice section as I got O.J., and be physically unable to keep my fingers away from the hash brown tongs), pancakes (Mom – I was a pancake whore. Everyone reading – so is my mom, a fellow pancake whore. Dad, a date at IHOP in FL in April. They made two kinds everyday – plain and banana, choc chip, blueberry, lemon (gross, I tried), so I would have one regular and one fancy one with loads of syrup) and then, fruit for breakfast dessert. This was my only meal until dinner time (no, kids, I’m not regressing – it was a temporary thing….). So, I indulged. As you can tell from the description, I was into my breakfasts…Sorry for going overboard there.

8:30 AM – Scuba Diving. I dove everyday I was in the Maldives. More on this to come.

Between 11-2 PM – return from diving and set up shop on two lounge chairs. One for me. One for Ipod, current book, Clarins SPF 15 for face and body, snorkel, fins and bottle of water. Lay out, relax. I would go into the room every so often to make Iced Nescafe, Let me explain. The coffee was very strong on the island, but I had a coffee maker and milk, et al…in my room, so would brew my own Nescafe (it’s not really brewing, but it sounds better) and put it in a water bottle and fridge it. I was obsessed. The houseboy caught on, and left me extra Nescafes and sugars every time he came to tidy my room (about 3 times/day they “tidy”).

5-6 – Watch sunset, or get massage.
6-7 – Run.
8 - ?? Dinner (usually fresh caught fish or sushi) on the beach and drinks with other guests. One night I ventured into Karaoke-land. Not worth detailing. I sucked, though I put on a good show. I think…

How’s that for a life? Yeah, I know…. Too bad it’s now over and I’m sitting in the airport waiting for a delayed flight to Singapore on a hard-ass wicker chair with a head cold. So, don’t worry – the good life isn’t as good right now.

So, the diving here was absolutely incredible. The clarity and visibility were astounding, the sea life was overwhelming, the dive team comfortable to be with, and my dive buddies (4 unrelated Brits who I wound up diving with every day), completely in sync with me. I wound up getting so hooked, that I became certified as a Deep Water Diver (can go to depths of 130 feet instead of 60 now…) and started on my Advanced Open Water Certification. OBSESSED. What we also did (me and the Brits) was a dive charter one day, where we did two dives – one shark dive, one dolphin dive. Both were fantastic. My divemaster Mohamed said it was the best day he’s had in his whole life in the Maldives. The shark dive was at about 100 feet, for about 40 minutes. We wound up surrounded (in a non-threatening way) by about 30 white-tipped reef sharks, who were happy to hang out with us, swimming by gracefully while we clung to coral in an attempt to watch them for as long as we could without being pulled by the current. The dolphin dive deposited us in about 100 feet of clear blue water. Not good with an underwater compass (though I working on it…), I couldn’t tell you which way was up, it was all just blue, no reefs on one side, no sea life to give away direction. And then, after about ten minutes of “ok, let’s go SEE something,” the dolphins appeared. About 200 of them, swimming in schools of 15-20 each, everywhere you looked, playing with us, frolicking, squeaking, twirling. Mommies, babies, big, small – it was one of the greatest times I’ve had underwater. SOOO fun. I also dove a wreck, a perfectly intact sunken ship off the coast of Male – downed in 1981, so it’s still in pretty good condition. Surreal to swim in and out of cabins of the ship, stand on the mast, peer through the windows in the galleys. Awesome underwater site. In addition to the diving, the snorkeling in the Maldives is equally good. The fish are fearless, they swim right by you, and hang around the shore if you feed them. I spent many hours snorkeling off my beach, watching stingrays and lobsters, eels and turtles, saunter back and forth the ocean floor.

Of course, being a Muslim country, the Maldives wouldn’t be complete without what I’m now calling my “Muslim Moments.” This one involved Ahmed, the mysterious Kurumba staffer (everyone’s name is Ahmed or Muhamed here – Muslim country theory – so it was hard to figure out just which Ahmed it was), who took to me from afar, seemingly, and started calling my room on a regular basis asking me to be what I thought was his “Good Friend,” to which I would get annoyed and have frustrated conversations with him about WHY he was calling me and that I didn’t understand him because of his accent (why I didn’t just hang up, I’m not sure…), when I realized that he was saying “GIRL FRIEND” and had to report him to security. The island then ALL knew my name, room number, to “look out for me” etc… The housekeeping head made me look through mug shots, if you will (photos of all the houseboys standing next to a made bed, smiling – their mattress handiwork), of all the houseboys to make sure Ahmed wasn’t among them. Blah blah… I’m out of the Muslim world after today, so hopefully, no more shady stories of men looking for a Western piece.

In sum: Even with Ahmed lurking somewhere close by but undetected, there were no drawbacks to the Maldives and EVERYONE should make it a point to get here in their lifetime (especially since they might not be here in 15 years…). If you have a honeymoon coming up – COME HERE! I would know immediately who the brides were, as the bodies on the female partners were uber-thin, and those same girls were eating pancakes, crossaints, hash browns, waffles and muffins every AM at breakfast, scarfing down steaks and baked potatoes with butter AND sour cream at dinner – poor thangs probably hadn’t eaten since their engagements. One such bride still made it to the gym each night, bless her 80 pound heart. The rest were happy reveling in their lack of photography and spotlights, wedding dresses and size 2s, in their short-term futures. My resort was one of the nicest from what I heard and saw, but I would say that South Male (where a lot of the good resorts are – Four Seasons is next to Kurumba, Banyan Tree, etc…) is too close to the airport, and while I’m not usually phased by planes, trains and automobiles, I did catch myself hearing an airplane every so often (Girls of Blue Jay Way – I can’t IMAGINE Rosen’s bitching on Maldivian air issues…!!!) But, otherwise, SHEER PERFECTION.

My plane just arrived. Onto Singapore to stay with my friend Pam and her husband. I have no idea what happens in Singapore except that you get caned if you chew gum while walking down the street and are killed if you possess/use drugs and it’s supposedly very clean. So, I have a lot of reading to do on the plane. I turned to mush in the Maldives and have to refocus on Singapore and Bali, my next stops. But likely, without any prior expectations, these countries will be amazing. Can’t wait.

More soon…


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