Wednesday, November 25, 2009

the best trip all year...

In the past year, I've traveled to the U.S., Egypt, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Thailand, and China... with trips planned for Laos and Vietnam...

But the one I'm on now is by far the best. Check out how I surprised my parents with a quick trip to Albany, Oregon for my new godson's baptism...

The thirty-two hour flight was definitely worth it.

happy thanksgiving...


Monday, November 9, 2009

Bungalow heaven... the Maldives...

Early this summer, Qatar Airways had a promotion with their Qmiles frequent flier program… the cost of any ticket, when purchased with miles, would be reduced by half. Therefore, if you use your miles, you get two free tickets for the cost of one free ticket. The catch was that you only got the promotion if you have a certain credit card from a local bank… which thankfully I have.

So there I was with a stack of Qmiles, trying to decide where in the world I was going to go for almost nothing. I was thinking Italy, Japan, or even Moscow. But [NAME REMOVED] had other ideas. [NAME REMOVED] doesn’t have the credit card required to use the promotion… but wanted to take advantage of the promotion anyway. She wryly suggested that I buy two tickets for the end of summer to a very expensive destination to save a ton of cash; someplace that you normally wouldn’t go due to the price or availability. Her argument sounded reasonable and I bought two tickets to the Maldives.

Before moving to Doha, I had never heard of the Maldives. I couldn’t tell you on what side of the world it was located, or even what continent. But over here, the Maldives is a rare treat reserved for those that need a complete break from reality for a few days. It is spoken of in whisper only. People have gone and never returned. Think the Garden of Eden, Shangri-La, or Denham Springs.

In actuality, the Maldives is an island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean, off the southern tip of India. The Maldives isn’t just one island… it is one-thousand, one-hundred and ninety (1190) islands grouped together into 36 atolls spread across thousands of square miles of ocean. Most of these islands are large enough for one small resort hotel… and that’s it. The largest island is barely the size of our campus, much less large enough for 80,000 people.

After buying the plane tickets (free… except for the tax) we still had to choose rooms at one of the resorts. No problem… there’s only about 700 of them to choose from. [NAME REMOVED] put me in charge of this trip, and had two requests. One, we must have access to a scuba shop. She had spent some time this summer relearning how to dive in the scalding hot water of Qatar specifically for this trip. And second (and this was the big one)… she would only stay in an over-the-water-bungalow. Not on the beach… not near the water… she wanted OVER-the-water bungalow.

Let me say this… the Maldives is not cheap. It isn’t even close to moderately expensive. Some of these resorts charge over $1000 for shanty’s, then still charge you for breakfast. Why am I stating the expense of the Maldives… because most of you know that I am a cheap bastard. I don’t pay for quality; I pay the least amount I possibly can to get out alive. Over-the-water bungalows are not what I would normally look at. They are the most expensive room at every resort. They are very nice rooms that are built on stilts in the middle of the ocean. Look out any window, and you see only ocean. Very nice, and very expensive.

After spending a week frantically searching for a single bungalow that didn’t cost more than my car, I was finally able to find a special deal on a room at one of the larger resorts. No exchanges, no changes, no refunds offered of any sort for the rock bottom price of $350 a night. Egads… the regular price was $620 a night.

We departed for the Maldives the weekend after classes started in the middle of Ramadan… no possible better time to get away for a few days. A five hour flight later, and we descended into a vast blue field of ocean below us, dotted with myriads of small green specks of land. Off the plane we met up with our hotel rep to take us to the hotel, the Sheraton Full Moon Maldives. This meant boarding a large ocean speedboat for a twenty minute cruise. Our hotel was only a two island hop from the airport island. The resorts on the outskirts of the atolls are only reached by seaplane… of which there was a runway made of buoys in the water nearby.

On arrival at the resort, we were greeted by the staff standing at the private dock grinning wide and waving to us. I always hated that arrival technique. You can look on their faces and see that they are forcing those smiles with everything they got. Deep down, you know they are sizing us up on which ones will leave decent tips and which ones they may be able to get drunk and screw.
The hotel took up the entire island. Not even a kilometer long, it was only a fifteen minute walk from one end to the other. We were ferried to our room in a golf cart. The bungalow was accessed by footbridge, with about ten other bungalows grouped together about fifty feet off the western beach. As we entered the room, I knew I had picked a winner. A simple, elegant room with large windows that looked out onto an unobstructed view of the ocean… as blue and clear as the sky. Just outside the room was a cozy deck with steps leading directly into the shallow water. Looking over the banister we spotted fish and small rays skimming the coral below.
We encircled the island getting a lay of the land. Restaurants, pools, and cabanas dotted the lush walkways covered in exotic flowers and palms. At the eastern tip of the island was a long footbridge to a very small private island that housed the spa center. [NAME REMOVED] is a sucker for massages, and since I did such a good job in picking the resort, she signed us up for a full massage package. We each headed to our separate changing rooms to undress and traipsed our way to the massage room. She was wearing a flowing white terrycloth robe, while I was desperately trying to maneuver my robe into covering my junk. We laid back and let our two Swedish masseuses work out our kinks from the flight while we listed to the sound of the waves crashing upon the coral beach just meters away.

After the massage, as we were walking back to our room, a member of the hotel staff was standing in the path looking straight up into a tree. I asked what she was staring at when suddenly a large bat with about a four-foot wingspan fell from the tree and flew away. She explained that the island bats love to roost in the three banyan trees on the island. We spent the next while checking out the branches above our heads for more of the rats-with-wings.

We headed back to the dock area to arrange for a scuba trip the next morning. The Maldives is renowned for having some of the best scuba dive sites in the world, and we were not going to let the opportunity pass us by. Having signed up the next morning’s dive, we retired to the bungalow to relax on the deck with the four books we brought and to swim in the ocean to cool off. Every time we crossed the footbridge to the bungalow, we could always look down and spot ever more colorful and exotic fish just swimming under our door. We tried to eat Thai food at the resort, but the service was awful and it kind of ruined the meal. So we headed back to the room to order our desserts, and sat in the dark under the stars, listening to the rushing water being pulled by the tides until we fell asleep.

The next morning, we had an amazing breakfast buffet at the main restaurant, gorging ourselves on the three varieties of pork bacon at our disposal. One thing about living in a Muslim country… when you’re away… everyone eats as much bacon as humanly possible. We actually got lucky, considering the Maldives is also a Muslim country. Some of the tiny island resorts won’t serve pork… sucks to be them.

We went to the dive shop where they had all our gear ready to go. We boarded the boat with a couple from Turkey and headed offshore to Hudhuveli Reef. We got our gear on and took the plunge down. Since [NAME REMOVED] is a novice diver, we could only descend to 18 meters, but that was plenty deep to see amazing creatures. We had about 15meters of visibility (which is almost perfectly clear) so the colors of the corals and fish just popped! We spotted eels, starfish, and an abundance of fish so varied that afterwards I bought a fish identification guide, and still couldn’t find some of the species! The big moment of the dive was that we spotted a large sea turtle that was about my size. While we were following this turtle down the sloping sea floor, out in the dark distance came two large figures silently approaching. Next thing I see is two enormous manta rays swimming directly towards me… their delicate fins flapping like birds in slow motion. They turned and started to swim parallel to me, and for a briefest of moments my entire field of vision was taken in by the slight of these incredibly graceful creatures gliding just above the shell of the ancient sea turtle. And just as soon as they appeared, they dove straight down into the abyss, beyond the boundary of sunlight.

Sights like that are why I dive.

After we climbed back aboard the boat and got back to the island, we decided to sign up for the next day’s afternoon dive. It was just too amazing to pass up… no matter that it was the most expensive dive I had ever taken.

We spent the rest of the day reading on the deck and taking dips onto the coral reef. We had a great lunch of simple fish and chips, the best either of us had ever eaten; so good in fact that we ordered them again for dinner in the room. [NAME REMOVED] read while I was able to enjoy the college football kickoff games on ESPN International.

After breakfast we headed to the dock to join up with an island hopping excursion that [NAME REMOVED] really wanted to do. She originally suggested taking one of the seaplane tours since I had always wanted to ride in one. But after seeing the price of one of those trips, there was just no way in hell… my wishes have an upper expenditure limit on them.

We boarded a very large cruising boat and headed off to one of the local islands… no resorts, just a small island where the Maldivians live. It was a very rustic little town, with shopkeepers asking us to check out their wares and such. We walked around this small island, just checking out the local life when I came across a shady area under some trees that was pockmarked with holes from two to six inches across. I couldn’t figure out what they were until I tried to get a closer look… and realized that all the holes were wriggling. Gray and blue crabs were all hiding behind little piles of debris at the entrances to what I realized was their homes. Anytime I approached, they scuttled into their holes. I looked around and noticed that we were surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of these crabs. Every time I took a step, more eyes on stalks would turn towards me and disappear underground. Later, we saw several men catching small red crabs, probably only an inch in size, in a shallow pool. They were slapping the water to drive the miniature crabs into a net they had laid out on the sandy bottom.

We reboarded the boat and headed out into the open water, passing by island after island of resorts and hotels. Some of them didn’t have any land you could see… just large, three story homes on stilts at least a few kilometers from the nearest beachhead. We arrived at a large island resort with a secluded cove and beach area where we could snorkel and have a drink at the bar on the edge of pier. [NAME REMOVED] and I got our masks out and I went for a snorkel while she watched her camera.

As I was in the water, feeling the pull of the crashing waves nearby and watching some parrot fish bite chunks of coral off of rocks, I really felt at peace and calm. I was in the water, which is my favorite place to be, staring off at unicorn fish playfully whizzing back and forth just in front of my face. I headed to the long ladder off the end of the pier where I entered to let [NAME REMOVED] get a shot at seeing these amazing animals. A Japanese man was just ahead of me at the stairs and started to climb the algae covered green steps. Just as I was about to pull my head out of the water I looked through his legs going up the steps… and saw a six foot black-tipped reef shark about two feet in front of me.

I must say this… the ocean scares me to death. I am truly terrified about things that swim below my feet. How do I cope with this fear? I face it head on by learning how to scuba dive and try to enjoy the amazing ecosystem around me. But when you find yourself staring at a black-tipped reef shark that is quite a bit larger than you, and so close that I could have reached out and touched it… it makes you think about other… not-so-calm things.

Surprisingly, I didn’t scream with the snorkel in my mouth. I stared at the shark swimming past me, raised my head above the water and yelled out in a tone of more amazement than fear, “Holy shit!! There’s a shark right here!!” Before I finished the sentence, the Japanese man realized what I had said and was up those steps faster than any man had traveled before. I lingered at the base of the steps, just staring at the dorsal fin of the shark as it crested above the surface of the water, just like you imagine in your nightmares. And suddenly, it took off away from the pier and into deeper water.

I stood, stunned. I honestly couldn’t believe what I had just experienced. It was only later when I thought about it in bed that it struck me how close I came to an actual open-water shark… cool. I asked our boat driver about the shark and he said it was a friendly shark… no worry.

[NAME REMOVED] and I snorkeled for a while more, then shared some fruity rum drinks at the bar. Soon we were back onboard and headed back to our resort. We noshed on another round of fish and chips, and headed back to the dock to go scuba diving once again.

This time, it was just us and a cute blonde onboard the scuba boat. We got our gear ready and dove down into Banana Reef. Now, I have to state something that [NAME REMOVED] will not like.

[NAME REMOVED] is a very good scuba diver… but a terrible dive buddy. The three of us and our dive master all started to descend when the blonde panicked and sprinted back up to the surface. From twenty meters down I watched as she climbed back aboard the boat, so she was obviously not diving with us. Our dive master joined us, at which I had to race to find [NAME REMOVED] since she felt like swimming alone instead of hanging with her dive buddy.
We dove along the reef wall and swam through a narrow tunnel with the underwater currents pushing us through from behind. Once out of the tunnel, we were immediately caught in the current and pushed away from the tunnel exit. At this point, [NAME REMOVED] starts motioning that we are missing our fourth person… the blonde that had never descended more than five feet. Immediately, she takes off against the current and reenters the tunnel swimming out of view. I try to signal the dive master, but he was too far away to get my signs, and I have no idea where she is going. I’m stuck with having to burn way too much air fighting my way against the current and also reenter the tunnel. [NAME REMOVED] is frantically searching when I finally get a hold of her fin and try to signal to her that there was no fourth, just the three of us. She keeps signaling back that we’re missing someone. I think it was the fact that she could hear my yelling at her through my mask that she was wrong that convinced her otherwise. We join back up with the dive master, who at this point was frantically searching for us!

Unfortunately, even though I am a great swimmer and diver, my size prevents me from being very efficient through the water, and my exertion to catch [NAME REMOVED] burned up over half my air! Only fifteen minutes into a forty minute dive, and I was almost out of air! I had to use my dive master’s emergency regulator and breathe from his tank for the rest of the dive. The entire time I was underwater from then on was me cursing [NAME REMOVED] between my Darth Vader breath sounds.

It took her NINE MINUTES to realize that someone was missing. Nine minutes! When the dive was over and she tried to explain herself to both me and the dive master, I pointed out that a dive buddy is supposed to be in contact with their buddy at all times… not every nine minutes! With that, I have decided to never buddy with [NAME REMOVED] again. I may dive with her… but I’m sticking her with the dive master.

We headed back to the room to rest and enjoy our last night listening to the ocean. We went to the gift shop to pick up some trinkets for home and send postcards (hope everyone got them). As we were walking thru a narrow pathway with large shrubs and trees on either side, one of the native bats exploded out of a bush just in front of us and flew right between us… close enough to actually ruffle [NAME REMOVED]’s hair! I was hollering how cool that was while [NAME REMOVED] just kept walking forward without a single out-of-place breath. I couldn’t believe she was so calm until I saw a look on her face that screamed “I know what just happened, but I don’t want to speak of it until I have a chance to change my pants.”

We ordered a huge room service feast of seared local seafood and a monstrous chocolate dessert. After dinner, we simply laid back and watched the expanse of crystal clear stars sway overhead.

The next morning we had to wake up early to catch our flight. But before we left the room, I had to engage in at least one skinny dip from our room. Unfortunately, I failed to realize that the tide had rolled out, and as I fell into a perfect Nestea’ backwards splash, my bare ass was rubbed raw on a large patch of exposed coral.

We packed up (after rubbing a tube of Neosporin on my left ass cheek) and caught our boat ride back to the main island for our flight. It was a great trip… relaxing, exciting, and generally serene. For anyone who has a chance to make it there… do it. It is as far away from anything you can imagine. It is one hell of an amazing escape.