Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Maldives...Paradise!

I am made for island life…there’s something about landing in a warm, tropical sunlit beach, with palm trees, flowers, sparkling waters…ah, the life. Lively drumming greeted us as we stepped from our sea plane and onto our island paradise…no shoes, no cares, nothing to do…Here's a picture of the island from the pier as we walked onto our island paradise...
So…a bit about the Maldives. The Maldives is the lowest country in the world – its average ground level is only about 4 feet above sea level…obviously a concern if global warming really is going melt the icecaps and cause the ocean to rise. It is composed of coral island made of coral debris and living coral. The coral forms a natural barrier, a protective fringe of reef, creating lagoons around the various islands. These lagoons are generally a beautiful turquoise color and crystal clear. The reefs also protect the islands from storms and high waves of the Indian Ocean. The inner part of the island has a thick layer of rich humus, allowing numerous tropical plants including coconut palms, mangroves, banyans, hydrangeas, hibiscus and other beautiful, lush green plants.
The view from our room...
Our room – its own little hut - overlooked shimmering turquoise blue waters. A quick walk across the pristine sand (a team of men and women rake the beach daily) delivered us to the warm, crystal clear waters where we could swim, snorkel, or just cool off. The big decision for the day was which beach to sit on, which area to snorkel in…tough life. The room was nice, nothing too exotic…but the shower area…out back…an outdoor shower with a private view of greenery, palm trees, and exotic flowers…a real pleasure to stand and enjoy the water cascading over your body. Good thing it was so nice…the salt water was pretty “sticky” so we ended up taking 3 or 4 showers a day to rinse off the salt…ah, like I said, a tough life.
Creative carvings...
I have to take a moment here to talk about the food. Usually I’m not too impressed with buffet food – it’s often overcooked since it’s sitting around staying hot for hours and it’s generally not really all that tasty. Not so here – the chefs were fabulous! We had a few foods that were prepared ahead of time, but primarily things that wouldn’t overcook themselves – the rices, the curries, potatoes, stews, but anything that would lose texture…they fixed for you short order. You could get the various pasta dishes prepared on the spot, stir fries were put together to match your tastes and cooked in front of you. Of course various meat dishes were available, again, prepared to order. The curries were wonderful – you could smell the spices across the room when anyone took off the lid…heavenly. Then there was the desert table – every meal had 5 or 6 tantalizing choices available. Fortunately, they also had fruit, fresh papaya, that melted on your tongue. It was really tough to not leave feeling very full.
We spent our first morning, and almost every morning, exploring around the island. (Actually, we walked around the island most days just to make sure we burned up some calories – they also had a gym that I frequented…out of self-defense!)The strip of beach extends around the entire island, though there are parts where the trees meet the sea, requiring real foraging through the brush or wading through the crystal waters…uh huh…like I said, tough life. We were able to see fish following us as we walked, including a number of small sharks. As we walked along the water villas, we found a ray skirting along the corals and finally burying itself in the sand.
Our second day there was Earth Hour, the night that around the world communities turned off their electric lights for an hour. To celebrate, they put on a buffet dinner by candlelight on the beach for everyone on the entire island. To put this in perspective, there are 383 villas/cabins/bungalows on the island with 2 or more people in each one (they were full). Usually people are fed in one of the 4 major buffet restaurants strategically placed around the island. For this night, however, they moved out the tables and chairs and spread them out on the beach – a major job all by itself. The various restaurants spent the day cooking the food for the evening’s feast, and what a feast it was. We were served a fruity champagne (even had a non-alcoholic version) as we entered, tiki torches lit the paths, candles flickered on the tables, live drumming filled the air, and tables and tables of food! After we ate we walked out on the jetty, looking back at the beach. Despite the lack of lights, the candles lit up the night.
Now…the most important discovery we made that night was… the bats. As we, and many others, walked towards the beach, we passed through an area where the trees were tall and formed a bit of a covered walkway. With so many people coming down at one time, at dusk, we apparently disturbed the bats. Fruit bats. LARGE fruit bats. They were about the size of the bats at the zoo, though some probably had a 3-4 foot wingspan. Most flew into the air but some flew down, along the corridor we were walking through. They flew overhead, but close enough that you probably could have reached out and touched them as they flew by. So totally cool – and so frustrating because, of course, I didn’t have the camera with me to take pictures!!! Of course not everyone was as enamored with them as I was but there were quite a few of us with our iphones out, attempting to take pictures of them – they didn’t come out, sadly. For the next four nights we haunted the walkways, the paths, the same locations, searching for bats, waiting for one to swoop down on us, waiting for the perfect picture of the bat flying towards us but…it never happened again. Did see a lot of bats in the trees and flying overhead and did get a few pictures of bats but still, nothing like that night. I really think it was the presence of so many people coming down at the same time that did it. 

The Maldives...continued...

Our primary activities included snorkeling, reading, snorkeling, eating, reading, snorkeling, walking around the island, reading, snorkeling…I know, tough life. The snorkeling was fantastic. The coral reef is just filled with hundreds of bright, colorful, and exotic fish. They ranged from tiny little dart fish and gobies to much larger parrot fish and even unicorn fish (yes, they do have a horn on the front of their head). We also got to see a sea turtle – not very large but totally cool to watch. The “recommended” place to snorkel was up by the main jetty but we found that if we went beyond the breakers in our lagoon, we had many more fish to watch. Plus, we didn’t have to go anywhere…we just put down our kindles, pulled on our beach slippers and snorkeling masks, and walked into the water. We were amazed and how noisy the fish were – we could actually hear them scraping the algae off the rocks!
As we walked around the island, I noticed the tracks in the sand. When you got up close to the bushes and trees, the sand would be undisturbed – by people anyway. What I discovered was tracks in the sand, made by various animals that traveled through, unnoticed. Looking at them, they probably were the tracks created by various sand crabs, hermit crabs, birds and I’m not sure what else. The patterns were gorgeous and intricate – really beautiful to look at.
All too soon the time came to leave. The tradition at the restaurant is to have a set table, right on the water, with candles and flowers on your last night. We had the prime spot with a gorgeous view of the ocean, the sunset, the sharks playing in the lights (the lights set in the water, just to attract sharks). It was a very nice way to end the fabulous week.
Male, the world’s smallest capital, was our next stop. Our flight was too early in the morning so we spent the night in a hotel on the island of Male. It’s the capital city of the Maldives and it is located on its own island. 
The airport is located on its own island also – across the way from the capital. We debated about going out since there’s been so much unrest there but the decision was made for us – we got in late enough and just about at dusk that we simply went upstairs to the restaurant with a view of the harbor and the city, sipped on ice tea and the sun went down and enjoyed an open air dinner. You can just make out the airport on the island across the harbor - it's also on its own island. The next morning was a 5:00 wake up to eat breakfast and grab a water taxi back to the airport and our flight home. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dune Bashing Doha Style

Sand dunes…well…they’re sandy…they come in all sizes…there are a lot of them…and people drive over them, at…well…high rates of speed. Tires spinning, fishtailing, sliding…not for the week at heart. Hmmm…then what in the world was I doing there?
They bill it as an “unforgettable ride” – that’s the truth! The tamely say “you travel over the Golden Dunes…” Huh! Hardly the description I would use. You careen up the side of a rather steep sand dune at a very high rate of speed, the car tilting crazily as everyone is screaming. The driver masterfully (thank goodness) keeps the car moving forward, side-wards, slip-sliding its way across the path. The next dune appears, the car slews around, slides across the shifting sands, and roars up the dune to catch up with the lead car. The two cars move, side-by-side, drivers laughing and cheering, cars drifting together and apart. We spin around at the edge of a dune, and proceed to slide, backwards, down the dune…the lead car following us down…3 inches in front of us! Yet more dunes challenge the drivers to try daring stunts, more speed, more curves, sliding, careening over hills, slopes, dancing the edges of the dunes.It's a free for all out there!
Three hours later we finally arrived at the inland sea, a restful stopping point where everyone could get out of the car – I had to pry my fingers off the bar I had been holding onto. The water was wet, cool and refreshing – though a bit too cool to swim. It is the cool season still – though I realize for most of you this is warmer than you ever see. It’s all relative.
We piled back into the car for a final hour of sliding around the dunes until we reached our camp. The camp was spectacular. Bedouin tents were set up around the enclosure, filled with the traditional pillows along the walls and carpets covering the floor. With the door closed, they proved to be quite warm and snug. We did have an untraditional swimming pool and long snaking pathways out to strategically placed seats along the sea. It seemed funny to have everything up on stilts – it’s a desert after all – but it turns out that in the late summer, the inland sea moves inland and floods the whole area. The raised paths are welcome then as the inland sea meets the camp.
I mentioned hours worth of traveling out to the camp, hours of roaming around the dunes. Well…the next morning our drivers came to pick us up at 7:00 – we were supposed to be back in town by 9:00 and I knew it was close to 1.5 hours from the entry to the dunes back to the school. I wondered how in the world they would manage it. I found out…it took less than 30 minutes to get from the camp to the entry point…even including a bit of running up and down and along the dunes and racing each other. We had no idea that we had actually covered so little distance.