Saturday, November 24, 2012

Performing Our Cultural Duty in Gaafaru

Every time I travel, I am reminded of my goal to be a more hospitable person—to go out of my way for others and make visitors, foreigners and strangers feel welcome and comfortable—whether in my home, presence or the country I live in. 

Kady and I are being hosted by a doctorin Male, Maldives whose hospitality puts us to shame. The doctor has connected us with an incredibly generous family on a tiny island called Gaafaru.

The youngest son of the family, Mifu, met Kady and me at the ferry in Male on Thursday morning. As we descended the ferry after a dumfounded three hours of breathtaking, turquoise ocean views and peeks at the hedonistic resorts Kady and I could only dream of visiting, I decided I could no longer refer to Cappodocia, Turkey as the most foreign place I've ever been.

View from the ferry.

The ferry.

View from the ferry.

Standing on top of the moving ferry!

The Republic of Maldives is a grouping of more than 1100 small islands made of sandbars and coral. With each step on Gaafaru, we ground the coral into finer sand—a bit eery since the white coral branches so closely resemble bones crunching under our feet.

Some of the larger bones of coral and, sadly, not a little bit of litter.

We were immediately ushered into the family home and seated for a meal.

Nothing makes you feel like a pretty lady like eating rice and curry with your hands while a river 
of sweat drips down your back.

After eating, we were scolded for trying to wash our dishes. Consoling ourselves with the notion that it was culturally rude to insist, we acquiesced and followed leisurely to the beach to "have a ride." The family had constructed a grouping of hammock swings with a full ocean view:

I spotted at least eight variations of crab as we swung in the breeze and tried to articulate the sentiment that swaying in a hammock near the ocean on a tropical island—and doing absolutely nothing else—is the very embodiment of the American concept of relaxation and luxury. And here Kady and I were—accidentally relaxing.

Mifu with one of his many nieces.

Crabs everywhere!

Uhm, I saw (and touched) this dead shark!

It sounds a bit trite, but I found myself really trying to just be. To appreciate the moment—the breeze and the scenery and the kindness and generosity—for what it was and not think about it as some future, distant memory that I will refer back to when I'm in Minnesota in February cursing my defroster. This is harder than it sounds...

We took a stroll around the island, which is perhaps only a kilometer in circumference. "They will stare," Mifu had said as we descended the ferry, and his words proved accurate. But mostly the stares turned to amused smiles as Kady and I smiled our big (expensive) American smiles and singsonged, "Hello!" 

The children were especially taken with our presence.

With no restaurants, hotels or actual sand beach, Gaafaru attracts no tourists other than a tour group here and there from a nearby resort desiring to see life on an inhabited island. Breaking off from the tourist circuit* is incredibly difficult and sometimes impossible, so Kady and I felt genuinely grateful to be a guest in a home. (We were still wide-eyed, questioning and opinionated tourists, have no doubt about it...)

That evening we swung in the hammocks as various nephews and cousins and uncles prepared freshly caught fish and octopus on skewers over a charcoal beach fire.

As guests, Kady and I had the honor of eating first, which, no matter what, still made us just as uncomfortable as not washing our dishes. By this time our "hand-eating" skills were improving. Mine even received a compliment. No, of course I didn't feel self-conscious as three women in long black dresses and hijabs stood and watched me eat and refilled my water before I could even place my glass on the table, and two grown men assessed my hand-eating skills...Why would you think that? Kady was given permission to eat with her dominant left hand. (I guess the "rules" we'd heard about don't apply to Maldives.)

The next morning we started our day with breakfast, a ride in the hammocks and then snorkeling in the bay. When I was a little girl, all I ever wanted was to be a mermaid (or if I had to, some sort of land-dwelling princess I guess), and to this day I don't know if anything makes me as giddy as snorkeling in the ocean. Every time I thought I had seen all the fish the reef had to offer, I spotted some other unknown species.

More on our swimming attire in a future post.

We came out of the ocean just in time for Mifu to make Friday prayers.

On initial inspection you would never think more than 20 or 30 people inhabited the island. The only time we were able to glimpse more than a ten or 15 inhabitants was after Friday prayers when we watched from our hammocks as dozens upon dozens of men and boys of all ages flooded one of the roads as they returned home from the mosque.

The sun was shining brightly as they marched home, so Kady and I ignored the few sprinkles we felt. Within moments, however, families were running to grab their clothes off the line, and Kady and I were stuck in a downpour with only a canopy of palm trees for shelter (poor us! only a canopy of palm trees for shelter. waaaaahhhh!!!). We sprinted to the nearest shelter, which turned out to be the awning of a family's dining room. They were eating their lunch and insisted we come inside and eat as well. And once again, we did our culturally sensitive duty and ate another free and delicious meal.

A few minutes later, the rain had abated and we were seated at our host family's table for second lunch.

But I gotta tell you—all this cultural sensitivity and hammock napping is getting really exhausting...

*I use the term "tourist circuit" to refer to the amenities, sites, activities and accommodations readily available to and touted to foreigners.


  1. I have the biggest grin reading this! Huge amount of jealousy. Those kinds of experiences are amazing and hard to come by. What is your finding hosts method?

  2. Truly one of my favorite travel experiences ever.

  3. Lisa said...
    Love this post Summer! So happy to see you guys together and having such a great time. Quite jealous as well. I mean really? "swaying in a hammock near the ocean on a tropical island--and doing absolutely nothing else--is the very embodiment of the American concept of relaxation and luxury". You got that right! Sign me up! btw..what are those numbers on the palm trees? I find myself doing the math. Ha!

    s on those palm trees? I find myself doing the math. Ha!

  4. Omg please hold a drawing next time to let a random blog reader come along with you guys......

  5. it was pleasure to have you guys and all i want is yu guys to b happy in that two days. :)

    1. Mifu! Our wonderful host!!! Maybe the best two days we had in our entire trip. Thanks so much. Please five our love and regards to your family.

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Your comments are why I get out of bed in the morning. Just kidding. But I do like them.