May 24, 2015

Next Stop Chagos

Leaving anywhere is always a little bittersweet. There’s the pang of departing a remarkable place we probably won’t visit with the same depth ever again but there’s also the excitement of the new and unknown

And between the two there’s the getting ready.

I’m not sure what causes the mental division between one place and the next. The physical divisions can vary: While crossing the South Pacific, one major line was the equator; another was the jump from one island group to another; in some places the separation is geographically small, but culturally wide. This time the divide is a 300 mile light-wind passage along the same geographic ridge of ancient volcanoes we’ve been exploring for the past two months. But the journey will take us from sparsely populated atolls to unpopulated ones.
We’re going from help-is-available to self-sufficient.
We’re also leaving behind the 4 am calls to prayer.

during squally weather the fishing boats stopped by to give us weather updates and food
Becoming more self-reliant:

For the most part self-reliance is the goal of cruisers. In practice, it’s impossible to plan for every contingency. In the Maldives we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have access to shipping agents from Real Seahawks. When we arrived in the Maldives, Assad met us at our boat (with ice cream and a sim card for our cell phone) then proceeded to answer any question we had—from where to buy x, y & z to what address should we use as a mail drop.

Here in Addu City, Matthi has arranged for our laundry, found us a welder and located carpenters and mechanics for other boats. Mostly he works as a large ship agent. He tells us large ships don’t need anywhere near the service yachts do, and while our fees are less than a ship’s, he enjoys the challenge of helping us on our way.

being invited into people's yards for mangoes and coconuts was a wonderful way to meet locals
Chagos doesn’t have an Assad or Matthi though—so there the reliance turns to helping each other. We’re carrying water maker parts to one boat that needs them from another boat that’s delayed for repairs. But aside from acting as a courier we’ve also been the contributor and receiver of a variety of different spare parts and expertise.

But truly, once we hit Chagos, we’ll need to be as self-contained as we’ve ever been.

Stocking up for self-sufficiency:
This squall reached 60 knots--it kept us at anchor and  food delivery stopped through the Maldives
It’s true that people eat everywhere. But as we moved away from agricultural regions it’s been clear that not everyone eats as well as everyone else. In the Maldives the main dish is tuna—it comes fresh, canned, dried and smoked and is found on the breakfast table, lunch table, dinner table and in snacks for tea. Along with the tuna you’ll find rice, cabbage, red onions, carrots and the occasional bean and tomato. All of these are tasty in moderation—but in the long run they’re both redundant and don’t keep as well as you might hope. So that’s led to a bit of a scavenger hunt for fresh food.

a healthy tuna industry feeds the population a LOT of tuna
Addu city is the second most populous atoll in the Maldives—but that really doesn’t say much. Not even the resorts buy their food in the Maldives—they have it shipped in separately. The rest of the country gets far too many staples from India. The food travels by slow boat and by the time it arrives, and is distributed to the outer atolls, the eggs are 50% bad and the cabbages are nearly sauerkraut.

To make the best of it, we’re dependent on kindness. In one store the shop keeper called me over to see his newest produce—so I could select the best options. On the great egg hunt (eggs didn’t make it to Addu city in the bad weather—and the atoll ran out) one shop keeper took off by scooter and searched shop-to-shop until he found a new shipment of eggs—then he came to find us to take us to the eggs. In some villages we’ve been given fresh mangos and on one the council president, Mohamed gave us a ‘clump’ of about 30 drinking coconuts.

our 'clump' after a week of use still looks awfully big
Once we get the food we need to preserve it as best we can. I’ve been pickling beans, making chutney, sun drying tomatoes and canning meat. We’ll leave Chagos either when we start to get hungry or our permit runs out.

When to go

Much of the ‘when’ was determined by our 60-day Maldivian cruising permit, which has run out. The rest is weather and readiness. The weather looks okay—not perfect, but fine. And there is always, always more that can be done and more food that can be bought—but we’ll leap off into the new and unknown tomorrow. It’s sooner than we’d like, and before we’re really ready but that’s how cruising is.

May 10, 2015

Weathering the Maldivian Weather

watching a squall come in over the reef

We’ve spent the past few days hunkering down between fast bursts of sailing south—when we have moved it’s been with a cautious eye on the weather and an equally careful search of the charts. When we get in we want to know exactly what to expect from an anchorage and have a fairly clear idea where we’ll be dropping the hook. Thanks goodness for google earth--and the Maldivian's unique use of 'stick' navigation (sticks often mark reef passes) if we had to rely on charts of this region we'd be far less adventurous.

a few seconds later the island (and our bows) disappeared in the rain
Our goal is to keep making our way south through the Maldives as the south west monsoon sets in: A goal that’s complicated by the fact that we really haven’t got a clear understanding of what to expect from the south west monsoon season—especially because as our climate changes, long-reliable seasons just aren’t that predictable anymore.

it's not all like this...
When we’re passage making, we tend to use the big picture weather providers: and download GRIBS and satellite pictures to get a sense of trends and forecasts. Once we get to a new country though—especially one that’s 99% sea, we tend to look more at local resources to get a handle on weather and current patterns. In the case of the Maldives we check in with local forecasts as well as with the local fishermen.

Since ancient times, the Maldivian people have organized their lives around two seasonal weather patterns. Every year has two monsoons, the north east monsoon or Iruvai and the south west monsoon called Hulhangu. Iruvai means hot and dry and Hulhangu means hot and wet. Historically Hulhangu starts on April 8 and is divided into 18 nakaiy, thirteen or fourteen day periods that help people determine the best times to fish, travel and plant crops. Technically the nakaiy should also help tell us when to sail south—but the feedback we’re getting from local fishermen is the nakaiy ain’t what they used to be, so we should use the historical info with a grain of salt.

the good news is you can still snorkel in the rain
Right now though the nakaiy seems to be right on track. The period from May 6-19 is called Kethi and traditionally consists of dark clouds, frequent rains and storms—making it a good time to burn leaves and sew crops but not such a good time to travel or fish for tuna.

The good news is that if Kethi does follow its typical patterns we should get a decent period of calm starting in a few days (that would be for the crop planting). Right now though, we’re tucked in behind a big wide reef with the tuna fleet anchored behind us. Wind is roaring through our rigging and we’re all catching up on long neglected chores, book reading and movie watching. And we're dreaming of days where we see sunsets. And the sun.

May 3, 2015

More Maldives

A Dhoani taking tourists for a sunset ride
I love it when a country surprises me.
Maybe it’s the sombre clothing, the women dressed in flowing black dresses and hijabs; or perhaps it’s the reserved way the locals interact, as welcome as we feel its tough to get a smile or wave out of people: but the Maldives feel very sedate and steady, and very unsurprising. It’s not the kind of place that you’d expect to have 12 different names for a coconut. Or even the kind of place where a coconut might be detained by the police. But during the 2013 election a kihah (young drinking coconut) was suspected of being infused with black magic and was accused of vote-rigging in a key presidential election.

The kihah was found innocent and released.

posters and political slogans are found throughout the islands
Much of what makes the Maldives intriguing is how little most people know about it. The common perception is of a sun-kissed paradise that caters to the well-heeled and honeymooning. And up until 2010 (after the Local Tourism Laws were passed by Mohamed Nasheed in 2009) exclusive resorts were about all outsiders ever saw of the Maldives.

In truth, it’s a deeply complex country of 394,000 (with one third of those being foreign or illegal workers). Most people either work in the resorts, for the government or they fish. Right now the Islamic Republic is struggling to stabilize its nascent democracy. But just yesterday thousands protested against the government in Male and hundreds (including several members of the opposing political party) were arrested.

we spend hours everyday in the warm water

Despite the turmoil, the Maldives feels very peaceful. We were lucky enough to spend the past two days being shown around a couple of villages (when we were out of the water—which is tough, the water is amazing). 

a local boat getting repairs
On Maamigili Island Jamsheed walked us through the town to the shore where traditional wooden boats being built. There we were told they are built without plans or nails and that the master boat builder has the blueprints in his head. From there he took us past the gardens and then to a local restaurant where he treated us to a traditional lunch where he encouraged us to try a little post-lunch adafi (betel leaf and areca nut with a little breath-freshening mint and clove).

my skeptical face...
Over the adafi (I’m pretty sure I got the delicate-white-tourist-lady serving because I never noticed any sort of effect) our talk turned to how the tourism laws are perceived in the villages. Jamsheed explained that more conservative Muslims are worried that the outside influence of foreigners will dilute community and religious values. But as the owner of a guesthouse he’s discovered the opposite is true. Most people who come to the islands want to learn about the local culture, he explained, so the local culture has a chance to become stronger.

We talked a while about village life and politics, and then Jamsheed asked us if we needed any coconuts. We told him we already have a few aboard and then we commiserated over how tricky it is to get the young drinking coconuts. Then we learned those aren’t coconuts. A coconut (the mature kind with meat) is a kaashi. But a kihah is for drinking (or placing curses on someone…) and therefore it’s not a coconut.

So armed with twelve names for coconuts, and a deeper understanding of village life, we headed back to the boat and dove back into the gorgeous water and looked forward to all the surprises to come.

April 28, 2015

Such Sadness for a Friend

There’s a funeral today. Every time I think about it my stomach lurches and I’m reminded of an unimaginable loss that happened in the blink of an eye. My friend’s sparkling little sprite of a daughter drowned near their boat. For an endless night, rescue crews searched the marina’s water while volunteers walked pathways hoping to find Kitty safe and happy. My friend and her family didn’t get their joyful ending.

Almost every parent I know has had ‘the moment’, that one where their kid was a kid and slipped from their grasp, or dodged out of sight. It’s ‘the moment’ because it reminds us that no matter how cautious we are, accidents happen. It’s also the moment because it should teach us humanity and compassion—it should remind us that sometimes when we get lucky, others do not.

I am so grateful to be part of a compassionate group of mothers who live on boats and who have jumped in to support Cidnie, Mark, Maura and Sam in any way they can. Some are making cross-country journeys for the funeral, others are coordinating meals, while others are fundraising for the family. Still others are there to bear witness with their words: My friend Cindy has compiled all the ways these women have said we’re standing beside the family in their grief and will be there in the future.

My friend Cidnie, with a level of grace I can’t imagine, has said one organization stood out in the search for Kitty. Tim Miller from Texas Equusearch promised the family to keep searching until Kitty was found. After other searches were called off, TXEQ kept their equipment in the water.

I was fortunate enough the write about Texas Equusearch a few years ago. If you’re not familiar with the organization, it’s one Tim Miller started after the loss of his own daughter. The volunteer group has purchased a variety of high-tech equipment to support local searches around North America. They also provide peer-support for families going through unimaginable grief.

Unfortunately, as a volunteer run organization they’re dependent on donations, and last year they nearly shut down, and Cidnie has asked that if you feel moved, to please donate in Kitty’s memory: Texas Equusearch

April 11, 2015

The Other Maldives

So we’ve been poking around the islands swimming in this gorgeous, utterly unreal, aqua water for a couple of weeks now. Some days we’ll sail for a few hours to another atoll. Others we’ll stay put and spend the day snorkeling and the evenings watching the sunset (often from the beach with a cold beverage in hand). On one level our experience is very similar to that of every other tourist who comes to the Maldives, but on another level it’s utterly different

The Maldives is a fairly unique place. Unlike most tropical holiday destinations, people coming to the Maldives are typically headed to a luxury resort on a private island. This means you arrive at the airport in Male and immediately transfer to your hotel transport. A short while later you’re on your own island—no local hawkers to contend with and other than the occasional cultural day-trip to a local island, no rubbing shoulders with riff-raff.

We’re kind of keen on the riff-raff and are really grateful to be here after the 2009 Local Tourism Law which lets us visit the villages. But recently we (sort-of) got a view of how the other half live when we visited the Zitahli Dholhiyadhoo Resort.

For a pleasant day we wandered the resort pathways, explored the amenities, played with the turtles in the conservation program and swam on the gorgeous resort reef. The major differentiation was we still ate and slept on the boat, and oh, the resort was built but never opened so it’s kind of abandoned.

part of the show suite--to let prospective buyers know how the resort could look
Maia checking out our over-water bungalow
Apparently there are quite a few abandoned resorts in the Maldives. Information about why they are tourist free is a bit scarce—but it seems that a combination of politics, financial and environmental factors have conspired against them.

checking out the turtle conservation program
the staff spend their off-time fishing for the turtles
The result is both a bit eerie and heartbreaking. It seems like a huge waste and the workers who are left behind to try and maintain the resorts face an uphill battle. Zitahli Dholhiyadhoo was started in 2008 set to open in early 2011, but rather than looking like an almost new resort it’s looking fairly forlorn. Still gorgeous though.

April 5, 2015

First Impressions of the Maldives

I’ve been slow to write about the Maldives—part of it is we’ve been busy exploring; the water is gorgeous and the villages are intriguing. The other reason is it’s a hard place to draw conclusions about; a typical day is a contradictory mix of experiences and emotions

 The other day Behan and I headed into Nolhivaranfaru, the little village we’d been anchored off of for the past few days. As we wandered the tidy grid of streets I was surprised by the grandeur of some of the houses peaking out from behind the high stone walls. Many of the homes we’re seen so far have been modest coral or cinder–block structures surrounded by fruit trees and enclosed by walls (often painted with political slogans). On Nolhivaranfaru there were also big blocks of government housing—apparently waiting to be filled by residents from other villages—as the Maldives seeks to centralize its population.

The main reason we headed in is we were planning to move on and Behan wanted to show me the ancient banyan tree in the village centre. I also wanted to take in some of the Koran recital competition that we’d been hearing amplified over the water. The reaction we got as we strolled the sand streets varied from engaged conversation, welcoming handshakes and smiles, to hard stares. We fell somewhere between guest and unwelcome distraction; despite having carefully dressed in long skirts and long sleeves our otherness still showed.

I’m not sure if this reaction is a reflection of the fact that the Local Tourism Law (which went into effect in 2009—and allows visitors to access islands outside of the approved ‘tourist’ islands) hasn’t really taken hold up here, or if Maldivian people are simply very reserved. Chances are we were among the first tourists (if not the first) to wander the village lanes.

 A short while later, we pulled up anchor and headed toward Kulhudhuffushi (grocery store island for short, and the forth largest city in the Maldives). On the way we encountered a small pod of shy dwarf sperm whale and a sleepy pod of Risso’s dolphins—just two of the 21 species of whales and dolphins found here. As we slowly motored past the Risso’s dolphins, we watched them drift lazily on the surface, their white snouts pointed sunward. One breached. And a few did dolphin leaps—but mainly they just sunbathed.

Below the water the life is just as rich and diverse. Sea-temperature rise means the coral isn’t as vibrant as some we’ve seen, but we’ve seen some great formations and a lovely variety of fish life. Coral is everywhere—so it’s not hard to find a place to snorkel (it’s actually harder to find a place to anchor).

In Kulhudhuffushi we anchored in the international boat harbour—as the only boats, and waited for the customs officials to return from prayer so we could head ashore. When we headed into town I took in the faded yellow flags for the Maldivian Democratic Party that still flutter over the streets—despite the imprisonment of former President Mohamed Nasheed.

Lining the street were stores filled with a quirky miscellany; cinnamon next to a vice and a box of machetes, and areca nut (betel) found with the rice. What we couldn’t find was flour. Somehow in our provisioning, wheat flour was missed. We never carry tons; it’s easily infested and until now we’ve found it everywhere.

We searched along the wide sand streets and down a few narrow lanes. Visiting about a dozen stores we went through our spiel: ask for flour for bread, show a loaf of bread, and repeat the flour part. Usually we got a head shake. Occasionally the store clerk would look through the whole shop with us before sending us on to the next store. The worst moment came when we chased down the bakery truck only to have the driver look at us in confusion-despite the baked goods sitting beside him.

On a whim we went into on final store. As soon as we entered, we were ready to turn around, it had less on the shelves than most of the others, but when we went through our spiel the shop clerk opened up a bucket of flour.

Yesterday we arrived at a new anchorage. After a pretty snorkel the kids headed to shore and I made belated hot cross buns. Then Evan and I went in and joined the other cruisers sitting in a circle in the sand with the council president where they were talking about politics, drinking water shortages, sea level rise and fishing. A woman in a full hijab quietly brought us drinking coconuts—then returned to a circle of women a little ways away.

I peppered our host with questions—trying to get to the heart of the Maldives, trying to understand what it’s like to live in the place that the rest of the world sees as a perfect paradise.