Travels with John Smith
Chapter 43 year 6 (2017)
Maldives, Sri Lanka part 2
The colour of Paradise
-swimming with a barracuda
-3 million dollar sand dune in the middle of the ocean
-birthday dinner hospitality
-no bikinis on the beach
-the tourist beach
-day trip to Paradise
-snorkelling under our bungalow
-sharks of every size
-upgrade to more paradise
-leopards and Pati’s
-moonstones and cinnamon
-turtles and fisherman on stilts
-sad reminder of the 2004 tsunami
Travels with John Smith
Chapter 43 year 6 (2017)
Maldives, Sri Lanka part 2
The colour of paradise
I am floating face down on the surface of the Indian ocean, in the Maldives. Every minute or so, I push my arms through the water to move forward. I can see a reef just off to my left that looks like the side of an underwater mountain, going straight down into the darkness of the ocean. Below and all around me are different shapes and sizes of brightly coloured fish going about their business. Some are nibbling at the underwater plants growing out of the reef and others are moving past me oblivious of my spying.
I am also on the lookout for the possibility of jellyfish, even though I have been told there are only small ones and their sting will hurt but not kill you. I have already seen pieces of jellyfish that have washed up on the beaches we have been frequenting. They are the preferred food of the many kinds of sea turtles here so finding pieces means the turtles have gotten to them 1st, which pleases me greatly.
As I peer in front of me, a long, fairly large grey form moves past me to my right. My heart stops as I notice it has a sharp pointed fin on it’s back. I stop swimming at once and put my face out of the water, frantically looking for the boat that has dropped us off into this patch of water for snorkelling.
I yell “There’s a shark!”and point in the direction I saw it. The guy who owns the boat we came here in, shouts back, “No. It’s a barracuda!”. He says, “I saw it. It was swimming very close to you.” I think, “What?! Have you seen the teeth on a barracuda?!”
He tells me its moved on but asks me if I want to get out. Not wanting to look like a wimp, I say I’ll stay for a bit longer. I am now looking out for jellyfish, barracudas and sharks and am pretty sure I have seen all the different kinds of fish there are in this area so don’t want to push my luck much longer. I call out to John, who is oblivious to all of this excitement but he says he’s ready to get out too.
We are sitting on the soft, sparkling white sand of a sand bar and all we can see around us is water. Since the Maldives is a collection of about 1,000 islands in the middle of the Indian ocean, we really are in the middle of the ocean!
The dune is a small curved piece of land about 100 metres long and 2 metres wide and there is a natural pool in the middle, where the boat we came here on, is docked. We also swim in this area, protected from the waves and any dangerous creatures that might wash up to the outer edge of the dune in the clear turquoise water. We have been here for a couple hours taking in the extraordinary beauty of a place most people only dream about actually seeing in real life.
Our guide tells us that this dune will be half under water when the tide comes up. He says we could buy it for about 3 million American dollars. He also tells us about a sand dune you can stay overnight on. They will set up a tent for you and bring you your meals from a nearby resort. The whole thing would cost about 500 American dollars. This idea does appeal to us, but we think staying in a bungalow (with stilts above the water) would be cool too. We get back in the boat as the sun is getting low. We are on our way to watch the dolphins playing in the waves and then we’ll go back to our hotel in Hulu Male.
Hulu Male is on the same island as the airport. There are a few hotels along the shore here, where many people stay for a few days on their way somewhere, to one of the many resorts on one of the many islands in the Maldives, or just through from Sri Lanka to Dubai or to Sri Lanka and/or the way to somewhere in Europe or towards somewhere in Asia. We are booked to stay here for 16 days.
The hotels on this Island are more reasonably priced than the resorts, though still expensive compared to Sri Lanka or most of the rest of Asia. The island is also close to Male, which is the Island/capital and government of the Maldives so the most industrial (though the only real industry here is Tourism and importing goods as nothing is exported). There are many restaurants and beaches here, and the same beautiful white sand and turquoise green blue water as other islands but still in the early days of real tourism here.
The majority of the locals are Muslim and many of the women wear the full hijab (head scarf and long dress and sleeves covering the body and head). When we booked this hotel, it was with the knowledge that we would be there for 16 days so we couldn’t believe our luck to find a hotel that was considerably cheaper than the resorts as the information for it said it was right on the beach and so we booked the room that was facing the beach.
We arrived quite late at night and found it was a little smaller than we expected but did have a big picture window overlooking the beach which was lovely. We found out the next day that locals liked to sit at the tables and chairs that were directly across from the hotel and the beach was not private so closing the curtains at least at night or when we were getting dressed was necessary. The staff is very friendly and are hard working so it is clean and as it is a small hotel, it has a kind of family appeal.
We settled in and started hanging out on the beach in front of the hotel for the 1st few days and couldn’t believe how lucky we were, that there were so few people there. We got to know the owner who informed us that the building used to be his house and he was one of the 1st in Hulumale to have the idea to turn his home into a hotel but in fact had sold the hotel but still owned the building.
He was quite the wheeler dealer and seemed to have his fingers in may pies including importing almost anything. Despite the fact that he didn’t live there or own the hotel we were in, he was sitting on one of the few chairs in front of the hotel, like a kind of Godfather receiving people on most evenings while we were there. When he learned it was my birthday, on our 1st day there, he sent us to another hotel he did own, for dinner (on him). While it was generous of him to do this, it meant we couldn’t choose where we wanted to go ( as we didn’t want to offend him after he was insisting we were his guests).
When we got there, the waiter presented us with a menu that seemed to have most of the pages out, except one, with 3 different options on it (We later met an Italian woman and her daughter who were staying in that hotel and ate there every night. The menu they described sounded a lot bigger). Still, it was a lovely gesture to offer us dinner on my birthday, from a virtual stranger.
We have been in Hulu Male for 4 days now and John and I are lying in the hot sun. I am thinking about the women wearing the hijab and how hot it would be and how difficult it would be to swim in one and wonder if seeing the tourists from various European countries in their swimsuits would offend the locals. Even though, as I said, the hotels on this strip were marketed as being on the beach and Tourism is their main industry, this is a predominantly Muslim country.
At this exact moment, I hear a voice and realize someone is speaking to John. I open my eyes and a uniformed policeman is telling him that we can’t stay on this beach, that we have to go to the tourist beach. That bikinis are not allowed on the public beach. He points down the beach towards an unknown destination and we nod our heads in embarrassment but also a little angry at the hotel for not telling us this.
We have been on this beach for a few days now, and I have worn both whole piece bathing suits and bikinis (but apparently they are both considered bikinis). There have been other people on the beach who were also wearing different kinds of bathing suits and we hadn’t seen the policeman anywhere then.
We walk for about 20 minutes to a 1/2 hour to get to the tourist beach and pass a sign on the way that says ‘No bikinis allowed on the public beach’ and another that says ‘No indecent behaviour‘ with a picture of 2 people kissing. It’s pretty deserted.
There is white sand and turquoise water and it’s a little wild; there are no washrooms, cafes or restaurants near by for refreshments, no sun beds to rent and we notice a few creatures (tons of little white crabs, jellyfish washed up on the shore and John sees a long black and white water snake in the water near the shore). It’s still Paradise and possibly more so because of the wildness of it. The bikini police make the odd appearance to check to see if any locals are there as they are not allowed on the tourist beach. We do notice the local odd wind surfer or boat a little off course.
We find out that it is possible to do day trips to the Resorts for about 100 American dollars (which includes the boat trip there and lunch) so we begin to look at brochures for various places to visit for the day as walking to the ‘tourist’ beach is ok but lugging everything with us is not what we want to do on our vacation every day.
I am wading in the brightest aqua marine water on the lookout for a shark. We are at the Paradise Resort and after being dropped off here on a boat, we walked up a long wooden walkway towards the island, when I spotted a reef shark near the plank. I filmed it for a bit and then caught up with the others; John and a couple from Budapest that we are hanging out with. We sunbath, have a nice lunch and are resting in the shade. John decides to go swimming and he comes back to say that while he was in the water, he felt what he thought was a cramp in is leg. He looked down and it was the same reef shark, that had bumped into his leg!
It is several days later and we are beneath our water bungalow(on stilts), looking at a multitude of beautifully coloured fish swimming around us, at the bottom of the stairs leading into the sea. It is Valentines day and we are in the Aadaran Prestige Vadoo resort. The water is so clear and full of marine life, we don’t even have to put on the snorkelling gear. We put our faces in the water anyway, with swimming googles on and see even more gorgeous fish. John throws some little pieces of bread in the water and suddenly there are what seems like hundreds more. One of them nibbles on John’s toes.
Yesterday, we saw some baby white sharks swimming near the shore. Later, when John went into the water to swim, they came around him, like little dogs or piglets. He tried to grab one and he said they were very strong, slipping out of his grasp and scooting away.
The day before yesterday, we checked into a gorgeously decorated water villa (room on stilts), at another Aadaran Resort with sunset views from the sundeck, sunrise views from the bathtub. There, we had been enjoying looking at the endless view of the ocean, watching the sunset and eating romantic meals by the ocean.
At dusk there was some excitement as we saw a ‘shark feeding’, which we viewed from a small bridge above the water, watching about 40 large sharks attack the chunks of fish dropped down to them in a frenzy. After that we could imagine what it might be like if you find yourself in the wrong place with a cut on your arm.
At about 9pm, the phone rang and it was our ‘butler’(you are assigned one when you stay in a water bungalow in any of the resorts), asking if we wanted an upgrade for the next day. It was hard to imagine how we could get upgraded from where we were but we were curious and said ok.
We took a rather harrowing 45 minute boat ride back towards Male and then past it. The ocean was full of swells and the waves we were jumping over were quite scary but we made it.
The villa at this resort is decorated like a Japanese house. There is a small garden at the entrance, sliding doors, a low table and chairs on the ground, and at the foot of the bed is a glass floor where we can see the beautiful bright blue water underneath. A bright yellow fish and 2 squid float by, directly underneath our feet. There is a huge washroom towards the front of the building that leads to an outdoor area with a large open air jacuzzi. In the main room, the entire wall is made of glass and it looks out onto a large wooden deck, with a Kingsize sun bed and a small private swimming pool on it. A huge stork like bird lands on the edge of the pool. The scene becomes even more surreal than it already is. It is hard to believe we are here.
We will hang out at the resort today and stay in Hulumale one more night before we head back to Sri Lanka. We have had a wonderful time, mixing it up between doing the ‘local’ spots and the playgrounds of the newly wedded and the wealthy. We learned that the Maldives is more than the picture of water bungalows that is often seen but also that the picture doesn’t even do the breathtaking beauty justice.
We are standing in a jeep, our heads poking out of the top, elbows resting on the canvas roof while we hold our cameras. I am filming and John’s camera is snapping away.
I see him looking straight at us. My heart beats faster. I wonder what he is thinking. We can see his spots through the leaves of the tree he is perched in. He moves back up to the top and for a while, we can only see his twitching tail. He arches his back, edging up quietly towards the bird his eyes are focused on. It is easy to forget he is a dangerous wild animal as all his movements are the same as a domestic house cat.
When we started our safari this morning, I introduced myself to our driver/guide and said, “Hello-What’s your name?” He answered “Pati” and I made him repeat it 3 times, thinking he misunderstood and was saying my name. Then I said “Your name is Pati? So is mine! I think thats a sign that we will be lucky and see a leopard today!” We were told not everyone gets to see one when we booked it so we are so happy. We watch him for a while and move on.
Pati is great at spotting animals our eyes would of never noticed; we see a kingfisher and lots of other strange and wonderful birds, lots of crocodiles and peacocks, wild boar and buffalo, various antelope looking animals.
We are staying in a lovely hotel that has a large open front desk, restaurant and bar areas, a huge swimming pool and lovely gardens. The people that run it are French but originally from Sri Lanka so it has a nice mixture of both cultures and really feels like a ‘Safari’ hotel. On our way here from Columbo, we passed and stopped at some wonderful places; including some cool out of the way beaches, lots of road stand specialties, like fresh coconut juice and buffalo curd and treacle (this is the region it comes from and it’s sold in large heavy clay pots).
We are looking down a narrow, man-made 20 foot hole in the ground. A man has just lowered himself into it, using a rope. He fills a wicker basket with gravel and mud taken from the bottom and the bucket is hoisted up to the surface while another bucket is lowered down again. It is a moonstone mine and this ancient method for mining precious and semi precious stones is called natural mining. It is not for the weak hearted or the claustrophobic.
They dig the hole one section at a time, by hand, bringing water and earth out in buckets while packing the sides of the hole with fern leaves, then placing wooden beams to keep it all in place. There is a thatched roof above the hole and a small pond close by, where the gravel that was removed from the hole is washed by hand in a large wicker bowl. In this way, the gem quality moonstones can be picked from the gravel.
The woman who is explaining to us how they mine the moonstones and other semi-precious stones holds a white stone up to the sunlight and a beautiful blue light reflects from it. We then watch different people cutting and polishing the raw stones and then others soldering silver to make rings, earrings and other jewelry which we know will be for sale in the shop on the way out.
This is also a cinnamon plantation so we watch a man use a small tool to shave large bark-like pieces from the branches of the cinnamon that will later be rolled into the stalks or powder or oil that people will buy to put into their teas and cakes. The woman rips a small piece from a stalk she is holding and asks if we want to chew some. It is surprisingly soft and sweet but I guess I have never had cinnamon this fresh.
I have come here with the intention of buying some jewelry so we make our way into the shop to look at what they are selling. I find some gorgeous earrings and a ring I like, John finds something he likes, we do a little haggling and both seller and buyer are happy when we leave.
We are visiting the Handunugoda Tea Estate which is a living, working museum so we see the various stages of collecting, cleaning and separating the tea. We learn that Virgin White tea is never touched with human hands (the new leaves are cut with scissors and never touched with bare skin).
They say their method follows an ancient Chinese ritual where ‘virgins’ were employed by the Mandarins to cut the tea leaf with golden scissors into a golden bowl and only the emperors lips touched the tea. Today only the tea is virgin (probably not the pluckers). This white tea is meant to be the healthiest (as it has the highest naturally occurring antioxidants in any beverage) and is also the most expensive tea in the world.
We are driving through Galle Fort, which is a walled area built by the various Europeans who have wanted to claim Sri Lanka for themselves(Dutch, British, etc. ). We are in an antique convertible car called a Wolseley, which has been provided by the hotel we are staying in.
We have been to the Fort a few times on our stay here as it is a great place to hang out, eat good upmarket food, shop in the lovely boutiques or admire the lovely sea views. Galle has many European buildings that have been converted into shops or chic shopping malls, surrounded by exotic fruit trees with monkeys hanging out in the them.
The hotel we have been staying in is more like a grand villa, owned by an artist who has designed the interior with loads of original sculptures and pieces of art in every nook and cranny. It’s like being in some kind of magic place with delightful surprises everywhere. Our host is quite a character and we visit with him and his wife, who were jewellers before the Tsunami of 2004, when they lost everything and had to start over again. He still had a little shop inside the hotel with some cool jewelry but he was laid back about selling, he said his view of life had changed since the Tsunami and he now appreciated life and daily pleasures.
The hotel stretches up 5 or 6 floors and is built into the side of the mountain, with a restaurant but also kitchens where you can cook your own food if you want and gardens and lots of outdoor areas and tree houses to hang out in. It is a little paradise hidden behind a large wooden gate that opens to the busy ocean road.
Across the road, there are beach restaurants and a few small hotels and along the road into Galle, lots of interesting shops selling everything from local musical instruments to fruit to interesting souvenirs.
Yesterday we decided to have one last beach day but on the way we would see some sights so we visited a turtle hatchery where we met lots of different kinds of turtles who were either saved from various accidents (like motor boat engines cutting off one fin so they could no longer swim in a straight line) or babies, getting bigger before they would be released into the wild (they have too may natural predators otherwise)so they have a chance at survival. We also saw turtles who are in danger of becoming extinct due to some cultures wanting to eat them.
I had also read about the Sri Lankan fisherman who balance themselves on stilts in the water and really wanted to see them. When we got here, we found out that no one really fishes like that anymore but to make a living, they will pose as if they are and you pay something to take their picture. It is a wonderful sight so we took some pictures and they invited us to try it for ourselves. It wasn’t easy to balance on the pole, so I cannot imagine doing it for any length of time and trying to catch a fish as well!
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a Buddhist statue that was dedicated to those who lost their or loved ones in the 2004 Tsunami. There were 2 old men working in a small, bright yellow ‘office’ there. When it happened, we remembered that the news we got back then was mostly about Thailand and we had no idea about all the other places that were affected by it. This exact spot was badly hit and especially so, because there was a passenger train full of people on the tracks when the wave hit. The people on the train and most of the villagers thought it would be safer to hide behind the train but when it hit, it crushed and killed everyone (almost 2,000 people).
The men showed us pictures of the aftermath and the images will stay with us both, forever. Death has no dignity; clothes torn from bodies, people bloated, lying in contorted and defenceless positions. The horror unescapable.
We are back at the ‘Penthouse on the Sea’ in Columbo, waiting for Amila to pick us up to take us to the airport and back to China. We have had a wonderful time, partly due to the people we have met here and all of the wonderful things we saw and did here (many of which I haven’t even mentioned). Sri Lanka had never been on our bucket list of places to go but it has captured our hearts. To be continued…