BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Journey to Maldives

The seabirds -- with their thick feathers of blue, white or black and wings spread out perfectly -- flew above us and guided us as we rode the waves on a white four-seater speedboat across Maldivian waters. 

There we were, the lone boat in the middle of the vast blue sea, on our way to a sandbar called Sexy Beach. I could see nothing in the faraway horizon except islands that appeared as tiny specks of land and the birds that seemed to signal us to just follow.

There was a soft drizzle when we left the island of Guraidhoo on this August afternoon but the drizzle soon parted like soft white curtains swaying in the wind to reveal a narrow patch of pinkish sand, dotted with the seabirds that seemed to give us a warm welcome to this island bliss. I felt the soft wet sand on my feet as soon as I jumped off the boat; I struggled to keep my balance while the big waves embraced my hundred pound body and soul as I made my way to paradise.

The afternoon sun is now out, glistening on the waters that splashed on this isolated sandbar, sitting perfectly in the middle of the wide, wide sea. Looking at it from above -- in my mind's eye --, I could see us walking in the middle of a painting -- the sandbar is a streak of cream colored paint in the middle of a giant emerald blue canvas.

We had this tiny paradise all to ourselves though there were signs of life before us -- a used lighter, a drenched box of menthol cigarettes and strangely, -- I say strangely because alcohol is prohibited in Maldives -- an empty bottle of rum.

A wooden box in the middle of the sandbar served as our makeshift table.

Ibrahim, our local guide, put a white picnic umbrella that stood perfectly in the middle of it all.

We had tuna sandwich for lunch, served with roti bread and fresh coconut juice. We had a box of ice cold lemon juice and the lazy afternoon all to ourselves. The island was ours and only ours to savor and enjoy.

Oh Lou Reed, you were right: It's such a perfect day.

We stayed for an hour or two, enjoying the waves, the big, big waves, chasing the seabirds and lying on the sand before the waters rhythmically devoured it.

Soon, it was time to head back to Guraidhoo, the second stop in our journey. It is our fourth day in this island country, Jes and I.

A few days ago, we woke up in the Maldivian capital of Male, to the sound of birds chirping outside the window of room 402, our temporary home in this Muslim country of only 393,500 people.

I had my first glimpse of the city that morning, while sitting on the rattan chair of our fourth floor balcony.

I could see my reflection from the window of the building right across us, the distance was just a little longer than arm's length. No kidding.

The streets are narrow, so narrow that cars have to fold their side mirrors when they pass by; the buildings are pastel colored, mostly cream and faded yellow. For a second I thought I woke up in Lisbon, as I did one morning in the April of 2011, because of hints of Portuguese architecture. This is not a surprise, with the island colonized by Portugal many lifetimes ago.

The morning sun is out, the air is gentle. It is a quiet perfect morning, with the smell of brewed coffee wafting in the air and restless pigeons dancing outside our window, far from what I had imagined the night before.

Evening had already descended by the time our plane from Singapore touched down the runway of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport. In the dark, I could not see the paradise that people say Maldives is even as I squinted my eyes many times over,

On the contrary, I felt like a war refugee traveling in the dead of night on a ferry with about a hundred more passengers to a far-away place. There was nothing but darkness and the roar of the ferry's engines.

But the far-away place I imagined turned out to be just ten minutes away, the capital of Male, a quaint city littered with curio shops and filled with Maldivians who are as warm and laid-back as islanders can be.

They don't fake hospitality, not these men and women. There's no extra effort to make you feel at home, just genuine courtesy, sincere smiles and a ready hand to help if they can.

The Maldivian women are in their garbs and veil the whole time, seemingly unmindful of the heat on warm afternoons, though they are used to foreigners strolling the city in their colorful beach wears and wide brim hats. 

There is a pristine white mosque, with a golden dome, casting shadows on the sand; its crescent moon glistening in the afternoon sun. By the port, there is a market of vegetables, fruits and fish with mostly male vendors. The fishermen are busy unloading their catch and so are the traders, with their goods from nearby Singapore or Sri Lanka.

On our last afternoon in Male, we were swept by a big crowd marching on the streets of the city, waving flags of India and Maldives and shouting in the sweltering heat: "India - Maldives Friendship Day!"

We trailed the crowd, turning left, right and left again when the marchers did. They shouted in their revelry as they waved their orange and red flags. Music blared, too from their mobile speakers. It's as if we stepped inside a Bollywood movie, with Indian music reverberating in the air.

By the time the march ended and the crowd dispersed, we found ourselves in another huge gathering, this time by the city's Artificial Beach, the paradise of the locals, where Muslim men and women, young and old are whiling their time away swimming in this crowded beach. The women are in shirts or shorts or modest swimwear; two-piece bathing suits are not allowed.

Here, there is a rally against Israel's attacks on the Gaza strip. Songs and shouts blared from the loud speakers; stop the attacks they say, the children are dying, the women are crying, the men are disappearing.

We sat in the nearest cafe we could find after all the revelry and the chaos. Our legs were aching. We were so tired we longed for ice cold pale beer but we were in the wrong country to be dreaming of beer, malt or spirits. And so in this cafe overlooking the city, we settled instead for "mocktails," drinks that looked and tasted like cocktail concoctions but minus the alcohol.

Jes ordered Maldives' version of mojito, which looked every bit like it but minus the punch, of course. It's sort of like getting drunk psychologically.

In the darkness, we walked back to our room, there are men huddled together in the park; some women, too.

The next day, we packed our stuff and prepared to leave for yet another island but not before having lunch in a local eatery where I had basmati rice and curried gizzard, it's so authentic, the taste still lingers. Ibrahim, a local photographer, took us to this place.

We went to the port at 2:30 in the afternoon and at that exact moment we arrived at the pier, the ferry that was supposed to take us to Gurhaidoo, just left dock.

With our heavy backpacks on our shoulders, we stood there, under the scorching sun, watching the boat move farther and farther away from us.

But this slight delay would be forgotten as we soon found ourselves on another ferry to Guraidhoo.

Two men with a wheel burrow for our heavy bags welcomed us at the dock. This quaint little island is now our new temporary home, a paradise of a place and truly the quintessential islander's life.

For days, we roamed the island. Many times, we got lost in the labyrinth of single-storey homes, shops and tall coconut trees. We saw souvenir shops and the locals who sat idly outside their homes. This is what island life is -- time stops here or it moves at a snail's pace, if it moves at all.

In the evening, the sound of hypnotic Muslim prayers cuts through the silence. In the mornings, early, early mornings, the women pick up the trash while their husbands go away to catch some fish or to work in nearby islands.

The last stop in our Maldives journey is the Holiday Inn Island resort in Kandooma, a very short boat ride from Guraidhoo but a strikingly different paradise.

The resort sits on one whole island and each part has a different story to tell. Tall coconut trees line the white sand beach. Surfers are riding the waves on one part while Korean women in their flowery hats are taking selfies outside the seafront villas.

Jes and I spent our last afternoon just swimming and chasing the kaleidoscope of underwater life before we headed back to our villa.

Ours is a garden villa with a tiny porch facing a giant Balete Tree. There is a hammock and a blue green day bed on this cozy area. Here, we sipped the $40 dollar Tiger beer we painstakingly bought from the minibar, our first alcoholic drink since leaving Manila. In private resorts such as these, alcoholic drinks are available but for a very high price.

The bathroom is total luxury, with black and white tiles and a tub. There's no roof above, so at night, one can take a bath under the stars or simply spend hours in the warm tub while listening to the crickets and the rest of the nocturnal world.

On our last day, before boarding our flight, we stood outside the airport, by the wooden plank overlooking the Maldivian sea, watching the crimson sun slowly disappear beneath the horizon. The sky is a palette of blue, violet and orange, nothing I've seen before here or elsewhere, or even in my dreams.

The image rushes in, seeps through the veins and stays for good. And so we are still there, right there, frozen in the moment by the edge of the wooden plank, with the sound of the waves wafting in the afternoon air, a fitting ending to our visceral journey inside the magic of Maldives.

Photos by me