The Maldives – I’m On A High

Click here for the audio version of this post.

I’m so high on life right now that I feel drunk (and you should know that the Maldives is a Muslim country, so I’ve not had a drop of alcohol – it’s illegal here).  The hangover from this is going to be rough.

This whole ‘feeling everything’ is getting annoying.  Every single day I have these moments where I just cannot hold back the tears of joy.  Thirty-eight years of restraining my emotions and they’re all coming out now.  It’s spectacular.  I’m in love with my life again.

I was on a boat heading to a small, local island in the Maldives yesterday when it hit me.  We were just leaving port.  I was one of two women and the only Westerner, which meant the only one with light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes.  The other woman was on her honeymoon.

The water was as crystal clear as the pictures you see.  I’ve not edited a single photo from the Maldives.  And the temperature was perfect.  I felt the breeze on my face as we sailed out into the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Literally, the middle of the ocean.  And there they were, the tears that come out of nowhere.  I don’t know how I got here, how I got to see my dream through, but I just thought to myself, Damn girl, you did it.  And I promised myself I wouldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day.

The Maldives are as picturesque as you see in the photos.  They are as magical as they seem.  And yes, you should come here.  It’s been a pivotal point in this journey for me.

The captain of our boat looked exactly like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.  And he had three other staff members with him, each of them equally as sun damaged and weathered from the hard work they do each day.  I was able to crawl down a short flight of stairs and into the boat, of course each of them there to help when and if needed.

We were headed towards a sand bank.  A sand bank is basically an island of sand.  It exposes its perfectly white, clean sand when the tide is down, and it covers itself in the clear ocean water when the tide comes up.  The boat itself cannot ‘dock’ on the sand bank as it would get stuck.  As we were approaching, one of the young men asked me if they would like them to carry me to the bank.  I told them maybe, but I thought I could swim most of the way, and then just crawl the distance when it became too shallow to swim.  After all, I am a diver and the ocean doesn’t scare me.  It’s one place where I can be free of the confines of a wheelchair.

Everyone else climbed down a ladder on the opposite side of the boat but I just jumped in the far distance from the edge of the boat and into the ocean.  I actually love those first jumps out of a boat and into the ocean.  I think there’s a sense of freedom that I get with it.  I started my swim towards the sand bank with the captain following along next to me.  It didn’t take long before the water became too shallow for me to swim and the sand was rougher and sharper than I expected.  I was wearing a long sleeve sun shirt and leggings that I had rolled up past my knees.  Because this is a Muslim country, bikinis and skin exposure are frowned upon.  I would have worn my long sleeve sun shirt anyway, and should have left my leggings rolled down (I have cuts all over my knees and a viscous sunburn now).  I asked the captain of the boat if he could help me the rest of the way.  It was pretty far and I was struggling.  I suggested I just get on his back but he insisted on picking me up like a baby.  Keep in my mind that he spoke very little English, so communicating was mostly hand singles as the waves crashed over us.

He picked me up and started the journey.  I have had many people carry me through the waves of the ocean and know that it’s not an easy task to move dead weight as the current pushes and pulls.  He was handling it though, and at one point asked me to put my arms around his neck.  This made sense, I was slipping and sliding everywhere.  Whatever you need to get me there, I thought as I looked down and saw blood gushing down my leg from the cuts on my knee.

We made it, of course, and I proceeded the selfie drill.  Smile here, snap.  Turn and smile again, snap.  There were only four other people on this sand bank outside of our small group of about ten.  A few people offered to take my picture, which was wonderful and so appreciated.  At one point during my Maldivian photo session, a group of four Bangladeshi men in their 50’s asked if they could take their photo with me.  I hadn’t stopped smiling – as I promised myself I wouldn’t do – so I sat in the sand with the water flowing just slighting over my legs and let each man, individually, come up and pose next to me.  I’m uncertain if they were photo’ing me out of admiration for being a solo, disabled traveler or if I was just truly such an anomaly with my Western appearance.  None the less, I smiled big for each picture.

My photo session continued for a while as I crawled all over the sand bank taking in different angles.  We were on this sand bank for a good hour and a half, which is where I got the gruesome sunburn on my calves and feet.  During the last 30 minutes or so, a guide from another tour came and sat next to me in the water.  He spoke English very well and we had an interesting conversation.  He explained to me that working in the Maldives was difficult with the different religions and cultures.  In many Arab and Indian cultures (which is a large percentage of the tourists), it is forbidden for a male employee to help a woman without the husband’s permission.  He told me a few stories where women would jump into the water, off of the boat, thinking they could swim, and then panic.  They would, naturally, grab onto him out of fear.  When the husbands saw this, they would get upset.  One time the police were called because of such an incident.  I made note of this and wondered how these men thought of me, all alone, no male to approve, and definitely needing some help along the way.  I wanted to make sure they felt comfortable helping however they needed to, because, as the man said, it’s safety first in the water.  I could appreciate this and understood it from my diving experience.

As we were preparing to head back to the boat, I was told it would be easiest for me to be carried.  The current was getting strong and I would be swimming against it.  I complied, I mean, what else was I to do?  I needed to get back to the boat and these men knew way better than I did the conditions of the sea.  The captain picked me up and we were on our way.  I could hear him breathing heavy and felt so bad.  I asked if he was okay and he said, “I am okay.”  We couldn’t really exchange many words beyond that; his English was limited.  Once the water got a little deeper, he put me down and I laid on my back.  He stood up by head and drug me the rest of the way as I attempted to float.  I remembered the conversation with the man on the sand bank and wondered if the captain was uncomfortable pulling me.  He had his hands under my arms and there’s no doubt he was touching more of me than he ever would with other women.  As I slipped around, he’d have to adjust pulling me from my waist to my chest to really anywhere that he could get a grip.  I wondered what Tony would have told him, being the closest thing to a husband I’ll ever have, and then thought, he would say, “As long as you are comfortable, let him do what he’s gotta do.  It’s a tough job to get someone through the ocean and back into the boat.”  I couldn’t have agreed more.

Back at the boat, I had a big hike to get up and over the ledge.  A man on the boat pulled my hand and the captain pushed me from behind, right on my ass, just pushing and sliding, like a giant sea otter sliding around. 

We moved a little further out and into the ocean where we did some snorkeling.  I got into and out of the boat the same way – a giant jump in and a slippery, hands everywhere ordeal to get back in.  I had been debating about diving in the Maldives, but have had a few people tell me that the coral is mostly bleached and it’s not as good as one might expect.  The snorkeling made up for it and was probably better anyway.  The water was no deeper than four or five feet, and right below us on the ocean floor were several stingrays.  These animals were longer than I was tall and wider than I could spread my arms.  The meat of their bodies had to be every ounce as heavy as I was, and there they were, just inches away from me, gracefully floating along.  It was phenomenal.

We had lunch on a local island.  An island with no paved roads and no tourists.  An island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, as far away from reality as I could get.  From here, we went out to another snorkeling spot.  Here, we saw many, many fish.  More fish than I’ve ever seen in one place, colorful, robust, and all around us.  The water was rougher here and it was easy to get pulled away from everyone.  Similar to diving, it’s always best to have a ‘buddy,’ which for me is usually Tony.  But I was alone so I figured it would be best for me to stay close to the captain.  He had been taking care of me this entire time anyway.  The rest of the group had ‘buddies’ and the other men were careful to stay near them.  If I drifted further away, he’d come and get me, reaching his hand out and pulling me back.  I’ll always be amazed at these young island men who can just move gracefully through the water, like a fish.  It’s the same with them everywhere I’ve been in the world.  They just kick a little and boom, they are right where they want to be.  It must have something to do with growing up in the water.  I’ve not yet figured out how to be graceful in the water, especially when the currents get rough.

After about 45 minutes, I realized that everyone else had gotten back into the boat and we were the only two in the water.  It was getting cloudy and a storm was definitely coming.  I also didn’t want to be alone in the water; it didn’t feel right.  I told the captain I was ready to go back and we made our way there.  Just a few minutes after we were back on board, it started pouring and the wind picked up.  We had moved just a short distance when they decided to ‘park’ the boat where we were instead of trying to fight the wind.  And so we waited there, alone in the sea, not another boat or land in sight, as the rain poured down on us and the clouds blew over.  Truly, a surreal moment to experience something so natural and powerful, with the company of only ten strangers, in the middle of the ocean.

It lasted about 15 minutes, and I just sat on the bench in the boat, watching as the droplets hit the water and the boat rocked back and forth.  It had been such a magical day, escaping from every bit of reality.  The sun had taken every opportunity to touch my soul, and the water washed away any remaining troubles I had.  I can’t really explain what about the day was so altering for me, but I remember thinking to myself, My life is back.  I am back.  And within minutes, the storm blew over and a rainbow appeared.  A rainbow that spanned the entire horizon, starting at one point in the sea, opening up high into the sky, and circling back into the deep waters.

On our way back, we encountered some dolphins.  Hundreds of dolphins.  They would swim alongside the boat, jump up and twirl in the air, and make the beautiful sounds that dolphins make.  Like the stingrays, I’ve experienced nothing like this before and words can’t explain the majestic experience of nature.

It was such an amazing day.  I was on a high that I knew would last a long, long time.  We got off the boat and into an open-aired truck that would drive us back to our respective hotels.  It was quite full and one of the workers told me that there wasn’t room for my wheelchair, so he’d meet us at the hotel and would bring it on his motorbike.  I didn’t even fight him or question it.  I just let him.  I have no idea how he did it but it was there waiting for me when I arrived.

Mizha, who is a woman working at the hotel but I would now call a friend, greeted me and asked me about my day.  She was the one who recommended this tour and I was so excited to show her all my pictures.  She finishes work at 6 pm each night and we always retreat to the rooftop terrace for coffee and tea when she is done.  We talk about all of the same things that girlfriends do – work, boys, health, dreams.  And we did exactly that as the sun set and I drank coffee and she drank tea.

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