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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…


Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Everyone warned me not to go to Varanasi, the most religious city in India, the spiritual soul of the country. As you may have heard on the news (I’ve gotten many emails making sure I was alright. Answer: yes), the day before I was leaving to go there, it was the location of terrorist bombings – at the most sacred temple and the railway station. Matt, my Delhi friend, was assigned to cover Varanasi for the AP. Even he told me to sit this one out. But…I couldn’t be deterred. I’m in India once, the likelihood of coming back here again in my lifetime is slim, I’m going to Varanasi. I have to see it, have to experience it, and I felt no anxiety about that decision. I just got on the plane and went, not really focusing on the “bomb” part. Crazy, maybe. Rewarding, completely. Varanasi was the best city I visited in India. Easily. I couldn’t have made a better choice in visiting.

Varanasi sits on the Ganges River, one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world, however, to Muslims, it is the heart and soul of their religious beliefs. In a lifetime, one must cleanse their soul in the Ganges, disrobe (if you’re a man) or ruin a gorgeous sari (if you’re a woman) and jump right in. This ritual takes place EVERY morning at sunrise on the ghats (staircases) leading down to the riverbank. Some cleanse daily. Some travel long distances to cleanse once. I will never cleanse. But, I would watch, fascinated, as others did. On the way to the sunrise ceremonies, the streets of Varanasi (circa 6 AM) are just starting to come to life. Children pump water out of rusty wells, storefronts open their doors, massive cows, chained to fences, wake from slumber, forget yesterday’s bombings – ALL of these buildings look bombed in their total dilapidation. The stench of waste and excrement, the norm in every town in India, is more overpowering here. It wafts off the river and smacks you right in the face, first thing in the morning. A truly pleasant alarm clock of sorts. The car horns, a ubiquitous sound in India, are just starting to kick in, pushing pedestrians, rickshaws and bicycles out of the way. My driver actually hit a pedestrian on our way to the river. Did we stop? No way – the pedestrian just glared at my driver, who glared right back with a look that said “but, I blew my horn, buddy! Now move.”

After finagling our way through the streets, through the homeless, through the limbless, through the begging babies, my guide and I arrived at the riverbank for our boat. The banks are lined with holy men, sitting under umbrellas, praying, dispensing wisdom, cleansing souls in their own way. You see head shaving rituals – five year old boys being shaven for the first time, beaming proudly in their mother’s arms and old men, being shaved by young men, possibly for the last time, their bodies so weak and frail. Music plays, drums beat, voices chant, all in honor of the gods. As we step into our boat, we slowly start our descent down the river, me awed all the while. I see groups of people dunking, lathering, washing their faces: necks, hands, feet. I see homeless shacks on the ghats, men and women doing their laundry in this filthy body of water, people swimming through the water shouting the name of their chosen god back and forth with each stroke. I see people lighting candles and sending them offshore, flower chains being thrown into the water, ashes blown downriver…all in deference to their gods, small prayers and offerings in the AM’s glow.

As we near each end of the river, I see the huge funeral pyres, or cremation sites. The Muslims cremate their dead, usually within hours after their passing. The pyres are basically huge mountains of ashes (human) that have accumulated through time. The pyres are going twenty-four hours, and the vision of smoke, stack of logs and men in prayer, is both ghastly and beautifully mind-blowing. Only men are allowed AT the cremation (I’m told by my guide because women cry too much…), so after the body is carried through the streets, it arrives at one of the sites. There, a bundle of logs is prepared on which the mourners lay the body. Then, the body is sprinkled with sandalwood oils and powders (to null the smell of human flesh burning) and then more logs are placed over the body. A holy man comes, cleanses himself in the river, then performs a ceremony, at conclusion, the body is lit and burns down to ashes, which are left there, with the heaps of other ashes. It’s UNBELIEVABLE to watch this. Cows are lingering in the background, bodies float past in the river (fives types of people ARE NOT cremated – lepers, holy men, children, pregnant women, and people bitten by snakes – these bodies are merely thrown into the river to decompose naturally), and boats carrying hordes of tourist witnessing it all. The Ganges is insane. A place I’ll never forget seeing, moreover, learning from.

From the Ganges, we went to my guide’s house in the backstreets of Varanasi. A traditional Indian home, it’s three stories high, open-air in the center. Navigating to his house was tricky, backalleys filled with shit of every kind (cow, goat, dog, human) to step around, animals to part ways for, schoolchildren to wave to, stares to endure. The top story is merely a rooftop. People travel from home to home via rooftop, rather than go out into the streets. The middle story is the main house – with bedroom (paper thin mattresses on the floor, sleeping possibly 12-15 across in a space the size of a California king), kitchen (pots/pans/spices and food on the floor of a room that looks otherwise bare), sitting room (similar to bedroom, with more pillows/beaten cushions and junk – papers, worn furniture handed down from more wealthy owners, some clothing strewn in corners). Obviously, no bathroom, running water, or electricity. The bottom level is for….the COWS! I swear, their digs are NICER than the rest of the house. Their rooms have doors and when opened, there are 3-4 cows lying with blankets and hay! I almost died when my guide opened the door. COWS? “Oh yes, Madam, you know the cows is very important to Indian people.” LO-fuckin-L.

Also inhabiting this particular bottom floor is a small shop for a local medicine man, who mixes oils and spices into intoxicating syrums that will cure most any kind of ailment. Chest cold, sinuses, migraines, stress, fatigue, concentration … you name it, he can fix it. I’m a skeptic on that kind of thing, herbal remedies. So, I just bought some masala tea spices and called it a day (Mom – wait until you try it!! I have the recipe and all the ingredients coming home with me!). An absolutely AMAZING day, I am thrilled I didn’t miss Varanasi. Granted, I wasn’t allowed to leave hotel property after dark, and prohibited from going to the temples where the bombings took place (shocker…), and had a bit of trouble getting a guide who was willing to take me out touring, day after, BUT the daily life, that one trip down the Ganges, was worth the visit alone. A fantastic way to spend my second to last day in India.

Back at Matt’s, I detoxed. First, I went to buy more gym clothes (soo cheap here!), then to TGI Friday’s (I’m over Indian food, though I think I mastered it pretty well…), and thought of my high school girls (Sket-e-rete) and our own Friday’s in Huntington and ordered French fries, a fountain Coke and a hot fudge and extra caramel vanilla nut sundae and pigged out on U.S. junk food, HAPPILY. Then, got on my flight to the Maldives reminiscing about, but leaving behind, the woes of India – the stenches (places, food, people), the traffic (laws or lack thereof, pollution, cab/rickshaw drivers), the limbless (WHY are there so many limbless people? How many accidents can ONE country have?), the power outages (at least 10/day. No lights, no worries…), the excrement (all sorts as mentioned), the segregated male-female security lines at the airport (rude, rude, rude), the visions of fat women in saris with peek-a-boo hip holes (not pretty…), the Muslim men (lest I forget the perverted men!?!?! As if…), as well as the beauty of it – the forts, the Victorian architecture, the colors and fabrics of the clothing, the sunsets, the curiosity of the people (about me), the smiles of the children, aloo parantha (delish potato filled bread) and paneer (cheese used in the veg meals that I came to love), the candies they give you on the airplanes, the belief in traditions, the servant’s pampering (especially Matt’s maid Jaya who I adored), morning banana and pomegranate breakfasts, and … the experience as a whole.

The past few weeks were really tough, constantly challenging, and often, depressing. They were maddening at points, sobering at others. Leaving India, I know I likely won’t be back, but wouldn’t trade those weeks for anything in the world…
I’m still wrapping my brain around it all. Sigh…India.

More soon.