The Wonderful Maldives

(A Country I am Indebted to Forever)

It so happened that my first travel abroad was to the Maldive Islands. I had spend most of my lifetime in the Soviet Union and had not been part of the elite of that peculiar society. So, I could only dream of travelling, say, to the nearest and socialist Bulgaria, not to mention the Maldives.

When I was employed at the International Department of the Institute for Medical Genetics, my immediate boss, who treated me kindly, once said to me: “Alexei Yefimovich, I’ve made you a ceiling”. It meant my pay being raised to the upper limit. On the one hand, that was happy news. On the other, I was losing any chance of further pay rise.

My “ceiling” made up 160 roubles per month. It was money you could live on rather comfortably by Soviet standards.

But such “luxuries” as a car, a dacha, or foreign travels were out of the questions. Besides, common people here were not allowed to travel abroad for no specific reason. Therefore, I could not surmise that within a few years I will find myself in theMaldives.

The Gorbachev “perestroika” stormed into the usual course of events. The borders opened. I was fixed up with a well-paid job, obtained a foreign passport, and decided to go for my very next holiday abroad. Then a question arose: “where?” The majority of our people, if they were me, would surely chooseEurope. But my reasoning was as follows: “Europeis the same asRussia, only better”. In the meantime, I was lured by other cultures and other religions. At about that time, a relatively cheap voucher to theMaldiveswith full board turned up. And I grabbed it.

When I told my friends that I was going to theMaldives, not all were quick enough to realize what islands exactly were at issue. Some of them thought it was theMalteseIslands, others, that it was theMalvinasIslands, but as far as theMaldivesproper were concerned, hardly anyone seemed to have heard of such.  But when they sorted out what’s what, they started to alarm me. They alleged that there was a 30-degree heat persisting there, that the climate there was humid, in general, like a hothouse. I was downright scared. But it was too late to draw back. As the saying goes, the die was cast.

So, I am riding to the Sheremetyevo-2 international airport. There were times when I used to go there to meet or see off foreign guests. Now it is me, I myself, am going abroad. I did not believe until the very last moment that I would be allowed out. I took not only my foreign passport, but also my internal passport along, although experienced people had assured me that the latter would not be needed at the airport.

A miracle had happened! I had passed through passport control and found myself in the airport’s international zone, where ”duty free” goods were sold. But it was not until I had got aboard the plane, or rather, until the plane had taken off that I finally believed in the reality of what was going on.

The route to theMaldivesran through theUnited Arab Emirates, so our plane landed in this country’s capital cityDubai. TheDubaiairport welcomed me with multi-lingual polyphony. I had never seen so many foreigners in one place before. Especially frequently I came across men wearing white clothes. “Sheiks”, – flashed across my mind. I also remember a prominently displayed huge portrait with three faces on it, featuring apparently the then rulers of the UAE. If it was not for the national peculiarity, this trio could be taken from a distance for our Marx-Engels-Lenin triad. Staying in my memory also is long one-level escalator which could take you together with you luggage from one end of the airport to the other – a very convenient thing.

I should say, the surrounding landscape of the Emirates did not fill me with enthusiasm. It was a desert with oil rigs sticking up here and there. The Gulf was discernible in the distance. “Looks like our CrimeangulfofSivash”, – I thought to myself. And yet, it was warm, about 20 degrees Celsius, which alone makes one glad. My first travel “from winter into summer” began.

Soon I found myself aboard a small and cosy airplane heading for Male [´ma:le], the capital city of theMaldiveIslands. When approaching I looked through the window and got stupefied – the Male airport’s runway was laid out not on the land, but right in the ocean! It was a breathtaking sight. As if we were landing on water. Click on the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egrlsJNH7sE

On arrival in the Male airport, I found out my tour operator’s counter. There, an unpleasant piece of news lay in wait for me. It turned out that in the island mentioned in my voucher there were no vacant hotel rooms left, and I was offered to sail to a different island. I tried to show my dissatisfaction with this mess, but they calmed me down, saying that there were better conditions there. I was already rather tired by then and did not feel like kicking up a stink over it. So, I got aboard a boat which was due to take me to “another” island.

And now I am sailing in theIndian Ocean. Contrary to my apprehensions, there was no “tropical heat” felt. Quite the reverse, a feeling of exceptional comfort crept over me. Despite the sun shining brightly, it was not hot at all, because of a fresh breeze continuously fanning me. As I found out afterwards, the air temperature in those places did not exceed 29 degrees Celsius. So, there is no “hothouse” whatsoever.

Appeased by the climatic factor, I started peering at the vast expanses of the ocean. And there another exciting show was lying in wait for me. Soon I saw a medium-size fish gliding side by side with our boat. All of a sudden, the fish surfaced and… flew off flapping its fins which turned out to be wings. The sight was so fantastic that no idea flashed across my mind in this connection. Gradually, I dug out of the depths of my memory some evidence of there occurring of the so called “flying fish”. This salutary idea helped me consolidate myself in the conviction that I had not yet gone off my head and all that was happening to me was for real.

When we arrived in the island, it was already dark. We were met by the waiters bearing trays on which there was a glass of cooled juice and, as it at first seemed to me, a little roll. I was very glad, because the meals served aboard the plane proved inedible, and by the time I got to the island, I felt pretty hungry. Having taken a sip of juice, I greedily attacked the “roll”. But it appeared to be so tough that all my attempts to bite off even if the smallest possible piece of it proved fruitless. Something was patently wrong with it. I looked around and saw how the newly arrived guests were unhurriedly unrolling this “roll”, which before my eyes was changing into… an aromatic napkin, with which they then thoroughly wiped their faces.

It was a funny metamorphosis. But I was in no mood for laughter, and my hunger grew even stronger. I looked in reception and asked where I could have dinner there. They politely answered: “Sorry, sir, but dinner is over for today”. Having wished me a “good night sleep”, they handed me my room key. Having taken the bit between my teeth, I obediently trudged after a room-boy who was carrying my suitcase.

My room represented the 2nd floor of a small 2-storey bungalow. The room has got a big window, outside of which coconut palms were rising. But what made me glad most of all was a carafe full of drinking water – all that was left for me to have for lunch and for dinner on that day. I went to bed, but could not fall asleep, try as I might, because of hunger and overtiredness. Besides, another trouble was lying in wait for me here.

Suddenly I heard, or rather felt, some continuous and intrusive humming sound, which seemed to be penetrating into all the corners of my room. Given a perfect pitch, it was quite easy for me to determine that it was the E-flat in the small octave. But this “discovery” did not mean to bring me any release whatsoever. I had already come across such phenomena, and I grasped quickly that the buzz was coming from the water pipes that resonated with the pumping station. I tried to change my positioning in bed, putting my head where feet were supposed to be, I moved the bed around, but all was in vain. The buzzing noise showed no sign of abating.  At last, I seemed to have found a place where this sound was kind of not so intrusive. “And yet, there cannot be paradise in its pure form” – I thought to myself, looking at the coconut palms looming outside the window, and dozed off into a painful and uneasy sleep.

In the morning, having had breakfast, I went straight to reception with a firm determination to kick up a stink over all troubles they had caused me. I demanded that the manager be called. In a few minutes a swarthy little man, with a tummy, came out, looking a bit like a chocolate elephant. He wore a badge inscribed “Front Manager” on his breast. His face expressed anxiety. “Good morning, sir. Can I help you?” – said he. This is where I delivered all my prepared text, point by point.

“Firstly, – I was orating, – I was not served dinner yesterday, whereas I had not eat anything all day long. Secondly, the water pipes were humming in my room all through the night, so I could not fall asleep even if for a moment. And in general…, – I was finishing my speech with, as it seemed to me, the most crushing argument, – in general, it is  another island that is mentioned in my voucher as the point of destination, and I’ve got no idea why on earth I was sent here. So, I demand that I be taken to the prescribed point of destination without delay”. Actually, the last phrase had not been prepared, it was “born” in the heat of the argumentation.

The “chocolate elephant” (actually, he was called Ravi) patiently listened to my grievances. Then he gently, in a similar way, point by point, started to shatter my well-composed accusatory construction. “I’m sorry, sir, but you had to be served dinner. It is not our fault, however. It is your Russian guide who had to see this done. As far as the pipes are concerned, no problem, you can change your room. And you can do this as often as you may like. Finally, if you want to go to the other island, we can take care of it. But, trust me, sir, – apparently, he wanted to finish his response with an equally crushing argument, – you’ll nowhere feel so good, but on this island”.

I could hardly say anything against that. I was disarmed altogether, and my indignation vanished into thin air. I was already being handed another room key. Having thanked the manager, I took the key and went to seek my new dwelling. And, I should say, it proved not so easy to find it. Although the island was round-shaped, a row of bungalows situated along the coast, got broken in some place, forming a certain dead-end. My bungalow – this time it was an individual little house – turned out to be the last in the row. Farther, there was mangrove brushwood. “Hardly a wolf had ever run so far into here”, – I thought to myself, despite the complete absurdity of such an assumption. Having entered my room, I saw a bowl on the table full of various fruit. A note was attached hereto which read: “To Alexei from administration”. I harkened – there was no “humming” heard.

Having had a little rest, I walked to the beach – I could not wait to have a dip in the ocean. The beach was situated along the island’s entire circumference, so it was literally a few steps away from any bungalow. And now, beyond a strip of snow-white sand the emerald-green, rippled surface of the lagoon opened up. Without a moment’s hesitation, I got into the water. But I stopped as quickly in bewilderment. The water was absolutely transparent, and I saw that the lagoon’s bottom was almost everywhere “strewed” with skates. I looked around at the holiday-makers on the beach, searching for advice, but everyone was seeing his or her own “business”, and no one took any notice of me. What was I to do? Despite a shoal, I swam off, trying not to touch the bottom.

Having swum at some distance away from the shore, I stumbled on a coral thicket. The corals did not rise above the water surface, but their tops were quite near it, so I could stroke these coarse and brittle creatures. Before too long, I started to feel quite at home in the lagoon and was just peacefully lying in the water. Suddenly it occurred to me that I could easily get sun-burnt this way, and hurried back to the shore to hide in the shadow of the palms.

The island was rather small – one could walk round it in a matter of half an hour. The paths on it run in the shadow of the palms and are planted round with flowering bushes that exhale delicate and inimitable scent.

The climate there, as I have already mentioned above, is mild and comfortable (surely, for “apparently healthy” individuals), with the temperature, not only during the day and night, but also throughout the year, fluctuating within 27 and 29 degrees Celsius. There are moments there when it is a bit “cool”, if one may put it that way, so you sometimes would like to slip on a T-shirt. In particular, it occurs when the sun, having finished its “work”, retreats beyond the horizon, while the ocean has not yet stated to give back the warmth accumulated over the course of the day. Also, it is said that in summer the rainfall is heavier there. During a “winter” fortnight that I spent there, there was none.

The ocean there is wonderfully warm and tender. Its water temperature is the same as that of the air. There are no big waves there. The water area adjacent to the island is fenced off from the open ocean by coral reefs, which reliably protect the lagoon against storms.

The ocean is full of life, and at all levels. It shows not only in the abundance of various species of fish and other living beings visible to the naked eye. When you walk along the beach in the dark, splashing through the water, you can see bright sparks flying away from under your feet. These are microorganisms (may I be forgiven for using this and other prosaisms).

The night sky of the Maldives enchants one with the multitude of strange and unusual constellations. Certainly, you will not find there the South Cross – it is still the northern hemisphere. Nevertheless, Cassiopeia, for example, is for some reason turned upside down there, which makes it look a bit like a running lion.

And yet, the main wealth of theMaldivesis the people. Holiday-makers on “my” island were largely presented by Germans, the French, and Boers (the South-African Dutch). Among them, a kind of “division of labour” could be observed. Germans, as a rule, were lying under the palms and reading books. The French were wandering along the paths. And Boers would continuously sail away somewhere – apparently for underwater hunting. Socially, this contingent was chiefly made up of prominent businessmen and retired high-ranking officials. So, the island proved to be a quite prestigious and, probably, costly holiday destination.

Everyone was immensely polite and forthcoming, and always smiled at me. I responded as politely and smiled back, saying: “Guten Tag” or “bonjour” (I did not happen to bump straight into the Boers). Sometimes a conversation would begin, and even some kind of friendly relationship would be established. This is where I was especially sorry that I did not speak properly any other language, except English. On my arrival there, some German sympathetically remarked: Ich sehe, Sie sind sehr müde von der Reise1. To which I answered him something like Ja, ja, natürlich2. Or there was another occasion, when a French couple could not figure out how to set a Jacuzzi going and asked me for help. Having adopted an air of competence, I looked at the device, which I saw for the first time in my life, and, desperately trying to revive all my knowledge of French, at last, constrained myself to utter: Pressez le bouton3.

But especially often I would happen to talk to a tall elderly Frenchman. He turned out to be a friend of the former French president Valerie Giscard d’Estaing and a participant in the Resistance movement. He would vividly describe various episodes of the Second World War and tell me about hardship and bereavements he had had to go through. His narration was always very emotional, he would continuously lapse into French, and tears would often well up in his eyes.

Generally speaking, “Westerners” seemed to me more spontaneous and somewhat even more helpless compared to our fellow people. Moreover, I felt an atmosphere of some world-wide brotherhood. And however hard I tried, I could never discern under the guise of politeness and amicability the “savage grin of imperialism”, which we had been scared with for so long.

As to the services staff, a division of labour could also be noticed there. Qualified employees were largely recruited from Sri Lanka, while the locals, as a rule, acted as room-boys, waiters, etc. I would have a chance to get added evidence of it. In particular, when I called an electrician, I greeted him with the usual Maldivian4: “Halu kihene” [´halu’kihene]! To which he, instead of the usual in such cases “barabaru” [ba´rabaru] replied with a puzzled look: “Sorry, what?” From it, I gathered that English still stayed as the cross-national communication language in the Maldives.

“Non-qualified” staff were also noted for their culture and polite manners. When some of the workers noticed me taking out of the dining hall a few buns, he just asked me, smiling: Are you going to feed fish? At least, no one would try to search you when you are leaving the dining hall, as the case may be with some Hilton brand hotels.

Besides, there are many college students there working as waiters. Shortly before my departure, I had with one of them the following talk:

  • Abdullah, is there anything I could send you from Russia?
  • Yes, sir. I would like books, if possible.
  • What kind of books?
  • On history, sir. In particular, the most interesting for me are the relationship between Stalin, Trotsky, and Bukharin.

This is the way the “non-qualified” employees may happen to be found there. Of course, not everyone of them was such “advanced”. The simple-minded waiter Hamid, for example, asked to send him a “Russian lady”.

And now, the time had come when I got only one day left to “drag my meditative leisure”. For the last time I was walking along the island’s shady paths. Suddenly I saw a worker who was knocking down ripe coconuts from the palms. I knew almost all the workers on the island by then, so I hailed him, as usual: Halu kihene, Ahmet. “Barabaru”, replied he, going on with his work. This time, I, for some reason, did not want to limit myself to just greeting, and started a conversation, now in English.

  • Tell me please, Ahmet, are there sharks in the lagoon?
  • Oh no, sir, there are none at all.
  • But, Ahmet, you can be absolutely frank with me. ‘Cause I am leaving tomorrow, and I would like to know the truth.
  • Frankly speaking, sir, there are sharks. But they’re far way in the ocean and never come into the lagoon.
  • Then I decided to give him a scare. You see, Ahmet, the point is that yesterday I saw a shark in the lagoon.
  • Really? It can’t be. But, after all, they sometimes may come into the lagoon. But these sharks, they’re… very friendly” – completed his phrase Ahmet, apparently, being himself amazed at his quick wit.

The night before my departure, I askedRaviif I could watch the news anywhere on the island. The point is that there were no TV sets in the bungalows, so I had been absolutely detached from the outer world throughout my stay there. On the one hand, this was conducive to full-fledged recreation. On the other,Russiawas going through troublesome times then. And our historical experience shows that after the liberals Bolsheviks may well come to power. Roughly speaking, I was wondering whether I would be executed immediately on return or not.Ravitold me that television could be found in the workmen’s settlement situated in the middle of the island. So, I headed there.

When entering the settlement, I noticed a small mosque, beside which there stood a man wearing a turban and decorated shoes with bent up toe tips. “Probably, it’s a mullah”, – I thought to myself. Soon I was invited into the canteen, where a TV set stood. Having watched the news and having received evidence that nothing extraordinary had happened in my homeland, I went to my bungalow to pack.

When I opened my room’s door, I got stunned – my bed was all buried in flowers. Having come up to it, I found a rather diffuse message, which began as follows: “Der frend, tuday is yor last nigt…,” and so on. Having recovered from the initial shock, I now reflected calmly: this is the way my room-boy decided to please me in the end, and he did it as he could, as his heart prompted him to. On second thoughts, he would most likely have prepared such “stagings” for all his guests before their departure, and I was hardly an exception here. The everyday practice was that after making the bed, a room-boy would leave beside the cushion a little flower and a card with good-night wishes printed in several languages: “Good night”, “Gute Nacht”, “Bonne nuit”, etc.

In the morning, I, again, had to take part in sorting things out with administration, this time as an interpreter. One of our tycoons from the city of Chelyabinsk (perhaps, the only Russian guest on the island) alleged that his room-boy had stolen from him 300 dollars. On these grounds, he refused to pay his hotel bills before leaving. I had more than once acted in the above capacity in my life, so I knew very well how much depended on how you interpret. The hotel’s side was represented byRavi, and I helped him, as far as possible.

This time around,Ravirose equal to the occasion, as he had always done. Quietly, but convincingly, he spelled out the procedure applicable in such cases, according to which a guest was supposed to pay on-site, and only on his or her return home lay pertinent claims to the travel agency. I am not sure if Ravi studied logic, but, to substantiate his position, he was sure to have resorted to the so called “ad hominem” argument. “If you don’t pay now, – he softly insisted, – this amount will be deducted from our accountant’s salary, which is not big as it is. And, because you know, he’s got hungry children inBangladesh”, and so on. In the end, the tycoon gave up and paid.

And now we are sailing off the island. Saying goodbye toRavi, I added: “When I arrived here, I didn’t know what to do and demanded to take me to another island. Now I’m just saying: I hate to leave this place”. As we were sailing farther and farther away from the shore, I nearly fell into a nostalgic mood. If I only had known that the major trouble of my trip was still lying ahead.

On our arrival in the Male airport it turned out that before leaving one had to pay an airport fee at the amount of 10 dollars. Our good-for-nothing guide had not warned us about that, and I had by then not a single dollar left. What was to be done? I found our guide, but she said that she “hadn’t got the faintest idea of what to do” and “was not going to pay for me out of her pocket”. Realizing all the hopelessness of my situation, I was wandering dismally along the airport building.

All of a sudden I saw a handful of Maldivian young men who were talking animatedly to each other. I came up to them and, interspersing my speech with thousands of apologies, mixing English and Maldivian words, imparted to them my grievance. Having gotten the point, the young men immediately started feeling in their pockets, pulling out some one dollar, some two. Soon the target sum was collected and handed to me. I did not believe my unexpected happiness and did not know how to thank them. But they calmed me down, saying “it’s OK” and “don’t worry”. That’s why my story about the Maldiveshas a subtitle: A Country I am Indebted to Forever.

So, my way back was free. I paid the airport fee and proceeded with completing other formalities. And only then I noticed how many women were working at the Male airport. And how beautiful and slender at that!  Interestingly, adding to their beauty was their uncommon uniform – their open body parts were shrouded with a light veil, which made them look like fairies.

Our plane is completing a parting circle over the Maldivian capital city. I can see the presidential palace with a waving flag. Farewell, my sweet Maldives. Although, not in its “pure form”, but still a paradise…

In should be said in conclusion that my relationship with the Maldives did not terminate at that point. We kept correspondence with Ravi for some time. Moreover, I even had an occasion to get to know his brother, when I was in the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, the city of Kandy. But that’s another story.

___________________________________________________

  1. I see you’re very tired of the road (Germ.)
  2. Yeah-yeah, of course (Germ).
  3. Press the button (Fr.)
  4. This language is otherwise called Dhivehi.
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