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.

March 23, 2015

Slowest passage ever?

If there is any wind, we're a 6 knot boat. We have typically averaged about 150 miles in a 24 hour period on passages. From Trinco to the northernmost Maldives port of entry is 720 miles.

This one has been different. Aside from the south coast of Sri Lanka, where the light NE trade winds are deflected and increased by the island, and the engine was shut off for a day, this has been a motorboat ride. And because we've still got a long way to go, we're maximizing our fuel range by motoring and motorsailing slowly. At 4 knots.

At 4 knots we burn about 0.4 gallons/hr, at 5 knots it's closer to 0.6. Fuel consumption in displacement boats is a very nonlinear curve.

We carry 60 gallons of diesel. At 0.4 gph we can motor for almost 150 hours. 150 hours x. 4 knots = 600 miles. We've never tried to maximize our motoring range until this passage. Let's all raise a glass and say "cheers" for bit of wind out here. 320 miles to go as of 3 am today.

Its boring to motor for 6 days. ��


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March 21, 2015

En route to the Maldives, day #3

It's been a very light wind passage to the Maldives until last night. Night #1 saw us getting caught in 2 fishing nets and having to cut ourselves free. It got to be a well practiced drill. Engine off, furl Genoa, raise the daggerboard where the net was caught, let net slip aft to the rudder, lift it with a boathook and cut away. Thankfully winds were light so there wasn't much pressure on the nets. Its always very stressful.

Last night was easier, we stayed further offshore in the shipping lane on the South coast of Sri Lanka - but more importantly the fishermen had lights on both ends of their nets. Made it much easier to avoid them. None came by to trade with us for fish.

We've been sailing slowly all night but the wind has increased to about 11 knots on the beam. So we're doing 6.5 knots. The forecast doesn't have this wind lasting, but for now we're going to enjoy it and sail fast to our next country.


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March 19, 2015

So Long Sri Lanka

In a perfect blogging world I would have written several posts about Sri Lanka by now. I would have written about riding an antique train to catch up with our friends in Kandy, and then stopping long enough to absorb a little of the wonder of Sri Lanka. I would have described how Maia fulfilled a childhood dream and had a sari made with babysitting money—and then how she discovered that it’s a bridge between cultures which lead to some of the sweetest interactions she’s had, as each woman she met needed to adjust it.

Some of my words would have been used to tell about the highlands, where tea is grown. How the green is so vibrant it made us think of New Zealand. But also, how the picking and processing of tea is so labour intensive that we’ll never take a cuppa for granted again. One entire post would probably have been about traveling cross country in company with three other boat crews—about the hotels we found (some nice, some infested) and what it felt like to hurtle down roads, passing every vehicle in sight, despite the lack of passing lanes and driving three abreast on a one-lane road.

The roads
Making hoppers--a yummy rice and coconut pancake with an egg inside
Sri Lanka has captivated us. We love the food, the people and the beauty of the landscape.

One morning in Anuradhapura we woke up early and loaded into a big jeep for a Safari through Wilpattu National Park. The park was closed for 26 violent years during the civil war. In 1984 when the LTTE massacred 24 park rangers, the terrorists went on the rampage poaching animals, taking timber and robbing archaeological treasures. The Government attempted to re-open the National Park twice. First in 2003, but then a group of visitors were killed in a landmine blast. In 2007 eight soldiers and park staff were killed by terrorists.

The park reopened for good after the war in 2010. But even in 2015 visits to the park are still a fraction of what they were. For us, this meant when our jeep passed through the gates and into the park, we soon wonderfully alone in the woods. Our guide was thrilled each time he stopped to show us yet another wonder. There was a jackal which looked exactly like an Egyptian Hieroglyphic, enough mongooses that we had to look up the plural of mongoose (mongeese is also correct), native peacocks and elephants.

When we sighted one of the parks 40 endangered leopards, I couldn’t help but cry.

In Anuradhapura we cycled through the 2000 year old city exploring the ruins. Samphat befriended us when we were looking at one excavation. He had worked as an archaeological assistant but because his hope is to travel he went to school to become a cook. Even as a cook in a good hotel he still only earns $40 a month. So as he showed us the ruins and taught us about Buddhism he explained his plan.

By the old bathing pool he gave us samples of the languages he’s learning—along with English, he’s taught himself some French, Italian, German and Spanish. As he showed us 2000-year relief carvings he told us how he was collecting foreign coins to represent his goals and showed us his small collection. Then he grew thoughtful and explained Buddhism teaches you to accept things, and maybe he’d never earn enough money to travel. So he showed us how to meditate to gain peace. 
But when he was done he told us he was a bad Buddhist because he still really wanted to travel.

March 4, 2015

Deep Sea Fishing Sri Lankan Style-day 8

It might seem counterintuitive, given all the pirate lore out there, but being approached by a decrepit boat with a wildly waving crew can be the highlight of a passage. We were prepared for the fishermen as we closed with the Sri Lankan coast. Other boats mentioned that the boat crews love to trade. On the surface they seem to be looking for beer and smokes but when we said we had neither, but wanted fish, it seemed anything would do. We were offered 3 mahi mahi for a container of orange juice. We only took one, but the real trade seemed to be a chance to laugh and wave and check out each other's boat.

We have a love-hate relationship with fishermen. At worst they fill the sea with unmarked or illegal gear and turn the ocean into a hazardous obstacle course. It's the best fishermen we love. They're often fishing at a substance level, with barely seaworthy boats, but their seamanship skills are humbling and their good nature is infectious.

Maia counted seven young men, on that small boat, 200 miles from shore. The cabin was a crowded wheelhouse and gear spilled over the decks. She tried to figure where they'd sleep or even find shade in the hot tropical sun. And maybe where they'd cook and what they might eat. They had questions too; where were we from and where were we going, but we had no common language for questions. So they circled us, calling out "hello" and "Bollywood" while one danced. And we called out good luck, wishing them safe fishing.

It's a small thing to trade for fish in the middle of the ocean, but it's a moment that will linger. The fish tasted of gratitude.
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March 3, 2015

Collision in the night-day 7 to Sri Lanka

My 12am-3am watch started off with a bang. We were speeding along at 9 knots under spinnaker when our starboard hull collided with something. The banging reverberated through the boat, waking Maia and sending Evan I out to check the rudder by flashlight and to try and catch sight of the mystery object.
The sea is filled with things we don't want to hit. There are half-sunk shipping containers, and their liberated contents, whales, fishing gear and more recently tons of random garbage. Along with all the plastic we've avoided huge timbers, large metal tanks and containers and even a door in the past months. Yesterday we sailed past what appeared to be a wooden stairway railing.
Happily whatever we hit last night was noisy but light weight and our hull and rudder were fine. Reassured all was well Evan and Maia headed off to sleep and Charlie and I hunkered down in the moonlight and peered into the distance.
There wasn't much to see; while the moonlight brightened the waves and made it easy to see the horizon it was impossible to see any submerged hazards. After a while I stopped staring at the waves and went back to scanning the horizon for boats. This is why I only caught a flash of the flying fish when it came soaring in through the hatch.
It landed by Charlie, who must have thought dreams do come true, then started fluttering its way around the boat.
A fish, flying through a window at 2:30am, is a hard thing to process, even on the ocean. Mouse, bug or wind-up-dalek toy all seemed like more likely explanations for the object that had just bounced down the stairs into Maia's hull, with Charlie in cautious pursuit.
The fish woke up Maia and she suggested I catch it and set it free before Charlie got brave enough to approach it. I scooped it up with a paper towel and slipped it back into the sea. Charlie settled in back beside me and stared intently out the window perhaps hoping for another wayward flight.
A half hour later, just before I woke Evan for his watch, I spotted a small boat dead ahead. I steered to avoid it and then headed to bed. When I woke the moon was gone and dawn was breaking and we were one day closer to Sri Lanka.
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February 28, 2015

Bound for Sri Lanka-day 4

Today's stronger winds and bumpy seas have settled into smooth sailing. Usually by the 4th day passages have settled into a comfortable routine; night watch patterns are established, we've caught up on sleep and we're just enjoying the view of an endlessly changing ocean. This time though I was caught off guard by day 3 sea sickness.
Non-sailors are often surprised that long distance sailors get seasick. I have to say there are times when I really wonder why I put myself through such misery. Like most sailors who get seasick I've tried all the remedies. Some knock me out, others make me hallucinate. At best I end up feeling doped and only mildly nauseous.
The payoff always seems worth it though. Tonight we'll be hundreds of miles from land and the stars in the night sky will span from the Southern Cross to the North Star, our wake will gleam with bioluminescence and some where over the horizon there's an exotic destination we're just starting to dream about.
Nothing about getting this far is easy- but in those bright and quiet moments there's no where else I'd choose to be.

635 miles from Trincomalee

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February 17, 2015

Test #2

I'm sure this will include a photo now that I've resized it.

Iridium test

This is a test to see if we can upload photos to the blog.

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