One! Two! Mahibadhoo!
For days I’ve been trying to come up the words to describe our experience here on Mahibadhoo. Amazing doesn’t cover it; unbelievable is lame. I’ll figure it out and let you know later. We arrived from Sri Lanka and had nine nights on a little island in the South Ari Atoll of the Republic of the Maldives. Mahibadhoo is the capital of the atoll and has the hospital and schools for the atoll. There are approximately 2,000 – 2,500 people that live here, but we’re not sure where they all are. The island is 1.75 miles long by .75 mile wide. Our experience here was by far my favorite of the trip.
Another Ferry Mishap
After two rough ferry rides and the plane door popping open mid-air, I thought we had exhausted our “bad luck”. Never say never. We boarded our 47 passenger ferry for the 1 ½ hour ride from the capital, Male to Mahibadhoo. Before we left the states, we knew that ferries do not run at night here. Our flight was scheduled around this fact. Our ferry left at four, so we should have arrived on Mahibadhoo at 5:30. I am laughing as I write this, as the journey took much longer and we did arrive after dark. As we motored out of the harbor, there was a small problem with the engine, but it was fixed within a minute or so. We enjoyed our ride as the boat sliced through the Indian Ocean. We passed far-away islands and wondered about the sea life underneath us. There were some strange sounds and the captain looked back to the three outboard engines. We stopped. There was nothing around us. No boats, no islands, nothing. You have got to be kidding me. This is not happening, right? A crew member got on the back of the boat as we bobbed like a cork. He attempted to fix the problem. “Attempted” is the key word here. The crew and captain were on their cell phones more than I would have liked. Are they calling for help? Why do they look so worried? People started vomiting. I had taken Dramamine, so was happy to give someone my green plastic barf bag. The boat was rocking from side to side and I started getting nervous. Lilly looked at me and asked if we would make it by dark. “Of course we will!” I think. The sun was setting and another ferry came along. A group of guys on the bow seemed to be, no, they WERE, laughing at us. I’m wondering if this was such a good idea. I had my good luck necklace on and my good luck acorn was packed in our bags. This would surely be enough to keep us on the lucky side of things. A guy jumped aboard and worked on the engine while random vomiting noises were heard. It’s an interesting thing, vomiting. Some people are very quiet; some are loud belchers. The little girl barfing off the back had the right style; no bags for her, just straight into the water. The engines finally started and we headed towards our destination. I kept myself busy making random sarcastic videos on my phone. Darkness came and no amount of tapping the cover would turn on that running light. This is why the ferries don’t run at night. We limped along at a slower speed while the captain guided us over the waves that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. I saw lights and knew we would make it to the island. The crew got on the bow and all of a sudden there was light – cell phone flashlights found the channel markers and we arrived in a harbor. Too bad it wasn’t our harbor. The lucky ones disembarked and the crew found a flashlight. We set off again into the darkness. In fifteen minutes we arrived at the harbor on Mahibadhoo. The flashlight found the channel markers and we pulled up to the dock at around 7:00 PM. Let the adventure continue!
A Muslim Country
The Maldives is a Muslim country. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that I would need to cover my shoulders and legs (to knees) when we are on Mahibadhoo. Once we are out of the harbor on our boat, we can remove the cover and have our bathing suits on. Returning to the harbor every day, we needed to cover again. If we are swimming on a beach on the island (this happened only twice), bikinis are not allowed (not a problem for me!).
There is no alcohol allowed on the island. For me, this was refreshing. The restaurants serve a variety of juices, sodas, coffee and tea. For once, I found a drink menu tailored especially to me. I am usually limited to the few “Mocktail” offerings that seem to be hidden at the end of a menu in non-Muslim countries. I didn’t once smell my drink to see if I was accidentally given the wrong one. No one was hung over in the morning and I never saw a drunk motorbike driver. Our crazy fun time happened the natural way.
Dogs are considered unclean and there are none here. Seeing as we have befriended a dog in almost every country, I thought this would be a challenge. Lilly quickly took to our hosts’ parrot Richie and the missing dog problem was solved; more on Richie later.
One of my favorite parts of being in a Muslim country is hearing the call to prayer. Although I couldn’t understand what was being said, I found the sound of the voice so soothing. I knew the stores would close and the men and women would be praying. Friday is the Holy Day here; the weekend starts on Friday and is two days long. On Fridays, the men go to one of the Mosques while the woman prepare the meal.
DC, California and Singapore
The other guests staying at our lodging were from the US and Singapore. I didn’t realize we would be spending most of our time with the other guests of our small five-room guesthouse. I’m not one to choose to share my vacation with random strangers (hence the reason I will never go on a cruise). What if we don’t get along? Are they going to have weird or annoying habits that distract from enjoying our little piece of paradise? Who are they? Do I need to keep my child within arm’s reach the whole time? Will they be judging? Yeah, I shouldn’t care about that anyway…who cares if they judge. What if they have no sense of humor? Do they even like to laugh? Will they be annoyed if I get excited about seeing a dolphin? Will I need to “behave”? Crap.
How very wrong I would have been if I hadn’t embraced our time together. Our fellow guests included a couple on their honey/baby moon, a gentleman from Washington, DC and two girls in their mid-twenties from Singapore – hence “The Singaporeans”. We did everything together; we ate, we snorkeled, we decided who we would eat first if we became stranded on our deserted island. Our group was diverse and fun. We talked about traveling and learned about places we haven’t been yet. I couldn’t imagine staying on Mahibadhoo without them. I wasn’t the first to make dolphin noises when we saw our first pod. I wasn’t the first to scream when we jumped off the safari boat. We went together to see a football game and brought boxes of freshly made French fries to share. Two of the guys went to get drinks and returned with the ever-elusive ice cream we had been searching for. When it came time for DC and the Singaporeans to leave, Lilly cried and cried. Who was going to embrace her sarcasm? Who would play on the paddleboard with her? It wouldn’t be the same making a sand man alone or even with Mom or Dad. We waved our goodbyes from the pier as they made heart shapes with their hands and sailed off to their next adventure. We’re keeping in touch and we may just see them again one day.
Amazing Noovilu Guesthouse
I first read about our lodging in a blog. We were looking for reasonably priced accommodations in the Maldives and found it. Paradise isn’t cheap, but we found an inexpensive rate for a priceless experience. For $130 a night, we found heaven on a small local island. We were served three fantastic meals a day. They didn’t hate me when I told them I don’t eat fish. I mean, we’re on an island for crying out loud; fish are everywhere and part of the diet. Every day we went on an excursion. We snorkeled with manta rays, went searching for whale sharks (no luck, but Lilly did chase down a pod of dolphins with a baby), hopped from reef to reef seeing new coral and fish with every swim. We spent the day on a deserted island; seriously, it was us and the island. We watched the family launch their safari boat and got to jump off it with a yell of “One! Two! Mahibadhoo!!! The “Team”, as our group of hosts was called, became like friends. There was a level of kindness that exceeded anything we had hoped for. They were very open to discussing any questions we had about island life and their religion. We learned so much. Because many of the guys had worked in resorts, they knew how to make sure every detail was taken care of. They knew I was interested in boats, so took us to two huge buildings where boats were being built. Our room was comfortable and spacious…with a soothing green trim on white walls. We had an outdoor bathroom, which was our first for the trip. At night we listened to music in our outdoor living room and shared pictures and movies from the day.
We were welcomed into their home (where 24 people – soon to be 26 – lived) and watched their mother make roshi. There are three pets living in the home, Rio, Leo and Richie. Richie was hatched on the island (it’s illegal to import parrots) and is an important member of the family. He had a run-in with a ceiling fan and is now blind in one eye. During our stay, he took his first flight since the accident. One day, while showering, I heard Richie calling from a nearby palm tree. I called for him, but fortunately he let me shower in peace. After a quick adventure in the sky, Richie returns to a shoulder and snuggles up against his owners. Leo and Rio were just as fascinating and tame, but Richie stole our hearts.
So, you’re the only non-Muslims on the island. You’re not wearing a hijab. How does that feel? A little disconcerting at times, as I felt like I wanted to fit in. I wanted to buy a scarf and wear it; not to play dress-up, but to be a part of the community. The children would look at us and laugh. People avoided us occasionally. We became so comfortable after a few days that when we saw the ferry drop off two tourists, we asked why they were allowed on “our” island.
A group of kids lived near our lodging and I played a little football with them one day. This made them laugh too. Rana, our favorite island character, is a girl of maybe 5 or 6 years. She would wave and say, “Bye” over and over; up to 20 times. Her family embraced us at the end of our trip and once called us over for some fresh coconut juice. The father took a machete and chopped the top off of the coconuts and gave them to us. We gave Rana a blow-up globe we had and she carried it around for hours.
There was a wedding celebration on the night of our arrival. The street was filled with well-wishers carrying presents wrapped in shiny paper. The bride and groom had a long line of islanders waiting to get their picture taken with them. Someone got a tube of Pringle-like chips wrapped as a gift. A large hall in the school was decorated with green paper lanterns and all the seats and tables were covered in white. There was a wedding celebration on the next night as well – must be wedding season in the Maldives. They get married here at a young age, usually in their early twenties. Divorce is common, they think due to the young age at marriage. The men here are allowed to have multiple wives, I heard between three and five. None of our hosts had more than one wife.
The stores (too many to count) were open for a few hours and then would close for prayer time. They would open again and close again. The final opening was at 8 PM. Most of the stores we went in had the same basic items; shampoo, candy, snacks, toiletries…etc. There was a bakery that DC bought some banana bread in for us to share at the soccer game. We had pizza from the same bakery and it was tasty. There are three pharmacies located right in a row. They are very small. I guess the competition keeps prices down. Residents from other islands would come to Mahibadhoo to spend the day shopping or going to the doctor and getting medicine. We never saw many people around, or at least not what I would expect from such a highly populated island.
Lilly the Mermaid
Lilly has always been hesitant with snorkeling. She was scared. Here, in the Indian Ocean, she has completely changed. From day one she embraced the turquoise waters and all they contained. The guys can free dive up to 16 meters or so. Lilly loved seeing how far she could go and would challenge herself to go deeper. She followed them like a fish. I always knew where she was thanks to her florescent pink surf shirt and her pink flippers. We snorkeled with the fish and she pointed left and right. When we were snorkeling off a reef in waves, looking for mantas, her eyes lit up at our first sighting. Those green eyes said so much. After spotting a pod of dolphins, she jumped in first and took off after them. I couldn’t keep up and missed the baby, but she and Ahmed followed them and she got to see it all. Swimming in 50 meter deep water – no problem. Now, she wants to take diving classes. All I ever hoped for is that she would have a love for the ocean. She doesn’t just love it now, she’s embraced it and feels comfortable enough to challenge herself and explore. Thank you Maldives!
We have since moved on to the resort island of Kandooma in the Male Atoll. Yes, it’s beautiful. The grounds are perfectly manicured and there are no mosquitos nipping at our ankles. The service is good, but impersonal compared to what he had on Mahibadhoo. The beach is cleaned daily of leaves and footprints are raked from the sand. There is western food to eat and a spa for those needing to relax. Here’s the problem: There is a small local island about 1/8 mile away. I can see it from the second floor of our villa. I find myself looking over to the island and wondering what they’re having for dinner. Every now and then I can see kids playing by the shore. I want to be there. I want to share a meal with them and walk their streets. It is so sterile here on our perfectly groomed resort island. Most people come to the Maldives for the experience we are having right now. I want to be back on a local island learning about the culture and laughing with the locals. It seems so unnatural; I miss Richie’s call.