Being a fish is serious work and seeing fishes is even more serious work, as I would eventually learn on my maiden trip to the Republic of Maldives! A very short flight away from Bangalore, much closer than even the national capital, I wondered why, as an ocean lover and a certified beach bum, I never found myself washed up the shoreline of the fabulous, bright and beachy country. Its eleven-hundred odd islands are amply swamped with magnificent beaches, breathing coral and fringed palm trees. Not to mention the best of the best resorts that claim up several of the most beautiful islands. Four seasons or Taj, Exotic or Luxurious you name it and its there, so it is not very easy to pick a resort but once you do I suppose it makes absolutely no difference cause the beauty is the beach and spectacular is the sea and in this island country there is nothing more that counts. The azzure-ness of the waters, the very many shades of blue, the turquoise or aqua or simply bright teal are a balm to the senses. There are many shades of blue, the one in Alaska, the one in Iran, the one in Turkey and the one in Spain, but this one is extra special. It is extra delightful. It speaks of living breathing corals and white sand. What lies beneath is important and it changes everything.
Whether one flies or one speeds into the very many charming resorts one cannot help but be smitten by the vastness of the Indian Ocean. Seventy-five percent of the earth is covered with water and the smart ones are those who can swim they say, as Dory reinstates the belief in one of the most loved animated stories Finding Nemo – just keep swimming she says. As this island country is touted as one to soon go under-water lock, stock and barrel I cannot help but imagine why swimming should be in every curriculum. Ofcourse am partial to the sport as it is my favourite. But I was thrilled to bits to be in a country which is about ninety-nine percent of water. Comprising of 26 Atolls, Maldives boasts of extravagant aqua life, sharp sun, a bustling capital city and islanders whose smiles are as easy and as present as ever. Male, the capital is extremely different from its other touristy islands that name no resemblance to its very conservative capital. The resorts are true to their names a symbol of hospitality and have no connection to the republic except the sea. The sea is the only common thread to the islands are the sea, the vastness of it, the beauty of it, the mysteriousness of it, for you never know what lies beneath!
Baby sharks, sting rays, storks are spotted a dime a dozen and did not even require us to don the scuba or even the snorkelling gear. They came swimming to the fringes of the beach, so comfortable were they that it looked more like they were beach-diving to spot us humans! The proximity of the reefs to the sand shore is something remarkable, there is not much distance from the rooms to the beach, from the beach to the crashing waves, from the crashing waves to the reefs and from the reef to the deep deep blue sea. The television set, wifi, or even comfy sheets are no contention to the lure of the hammock, the shade of the palms, the dreamy orange-hued sunsets or the shimmery moonlight flitting away from the forever moving sea. A book in hand and sunglasses are deeply recommended though, also if one can, one must sport a bikini in these climes, the peer pressure is just too much. There are some serious vacay goals out in the Maldives, body or mind! But then for the burkini donners there is space under the sea. Yes literally!
Foraying into the deep blue sea is not for the faint-hearted, next time I probably will just choose the devil and not the deep blue sea. 😉 However for this time I mildly nodded to my five star PADI diving instructor and zipped up my gear ready to experience all the hulla-boo about diving deep. Mask check, Nitrox-check, flippers check, hair in a bun and a spirit to soar, oops sink, I flipped-flippered onto one of the two-passageways the resort make ducking the shallow corals onto the deep end. As an avid swimmer with a deep love for the ocean, water, really in any form or even the swimming pool I remembered all the underwater frolic swimming as a child and then as a teen, deep water diving but never once I had strapped to me an oxygen cylinder that literally felt like a ton of bricks. Why would anyone do that I wondered, when it was just so much nicer to swim on the surface, taking in long deep breaths whenever one could! It would take a few more meters under for me to understand. There is something so meditative and calming about swimming, the rhythmic movement, breathing, splashing of water, most of it, all of it. Under the sea as we dropped further I could feel my ears pop and then the schools, the very many schools of fishes. I cannot name any of them, some I’d like to call the zebra fish as they had stripes, the blue fish, the spade fish, frankly I couldnt be bothered cause my favorite animal is the dolphin and its not even a fish!
What was striking to me however was the coral reef. As the fishes dashed into the reef, nibbling away I could see portions of the reef breathing, with rhythmic slow movements and that was simply spectacular. Ahead of the reef the deep blue sea appears and the depth is unfathomable making it even more thrilling, one never knows what shows up and swims around. A shark made its way to us and as it did not bare its teeth I tried not being offended that it did not consider me being worthy as food. As it went by I tried focussing on the many other fish who were equally less bothered by my presence. They looked so bored and didnt even seem to want to take the opportunity of my presence in their habitat to chide me or my humankind for polluting their home, the seas. Fishes I must say are worse than cats. No expression, no hello, no acknowledgement even in the remotest sense. It felt like I was in an aquarium and since we werent supposed to touch the coral we said a quick hello by patting gently. Coral reefs are so gentle they say that if touched they will simply die. Well then better to maintain distance from sensitive creatures! A note to myself as I was only recently learning. After about forty-five minutes under the sea, with the disney soundtrack ‘Under the sea’ playing on loop in my mind for the fortieth time or so I kind of got bored, as bored as fishes and the dry nature of the Nitrox began to hurt my windpipe and all the internal organs making me very very uncomfortable. As humans, with a rather sharpened sense of comfort I decided to take out my mouth-piece and putting it back after a second.
Now that second seemed like an hour when I not only swallowed some sea water but panicked with not being able to put the mouth-piece back, not able to breathe, feeling water entering my lungs I kicked my legs hard, lets just say swimmers instinct and rose up to the surface in a fraction of the second. A second of hell I thought, but then there was more to follow! Reaching the surface I got ashore soon enough but felt mildly stupid about not being able to resume my dive putting the mouthpiece back, so I stayed on a bit in the shallow reef practicing again and again how to resume a dive putting the mouth-piece back. The panic had my heart beating super fast and my instructor asked me to get back to diving and not treat it as an end to my shining career in diving. He was very impressed how I lasted so well for the forty-five minutes making it to the twelve-meter depth so effortlessly for a first-timer. Do the full course he said, I’d be a pro! After getting out of the sea and spending the rest of the afternoon in the pool and then in bed, I literally saw stars when later I developed what they may call decompression sickness, I deduced this after my five-minute google research. But like they say, google is no doctor and soon I found my way to the medical clinic in the resort reporting exhaustion and not being able to take deep breaths. Honestly I never valued deep breathing much till I felt I could not take it then.
The medical centre run by Germans had the doctor immediately asking me to lie down for an IV transfusion, strapping an oxygen ventilator to my mouth and nose, checking my vitals constantly and within ten minutes diagnosing my with Barotrauma, a suspected tear in the lung and referring me to a hospital in Male. He even personally accompanied me with two medical assistants to a private transfer to Male island having an ambulance waiting for me at the Ferry terminal with paramedics alert. Transferred to the Emergency Room in the private hospital I was certain that I was going to die and was wondering why my life wasnt flashing in backwards like all those people who had a brush with death do. When my life didnt come flashing to me I figured that I was not going to die and wished that if I live I would be able to swim again, maybe dive again, boring yes but this time I was determined to do it right. After a quick X-Ray and drawing out blood from both my arteries (this one was horrid, poking straight to the bones) and veins, a diagnosis from a very kind doctor I was let go citing that my lungs had some level of trauma but nothing that they couldnt recover from themselves. After a prescription of antibiotics I was let go off. It felt strange to come in with paramedics in an ambulance on a stretcher and walk out of the hospital carrying my bag all in a matter of about three hours! At twelve in the night there was no taxi available and lots of people walked the streets in the capital so we had to walk all the way to the ferry terminal.
A ride back, I was extremely grateful to be okay, having not met the doctors suspicions, well, even the Germans are not always precise, I thought to myself that no matter what I need to learn to relax. I fished out a notepad in the bag and wrote in big bold letters, ‘RELAX’. A note to myself. Writing it in bold I hoped the message got to my brain and my brain remembers forever. The ocean breeze ran through my hair and flushed my cheeks as the speed boat made it to the jetty of our resort. Nothing really matters and no cares are worth much, in the end it all turns out fine. I walked back to the room marvelling the quiet peace of the resort and how different Male was at the very same time. Climbing into bed I was extremely glad to be able to breathe and breathe deeply that too. Many thanks to doctors who do not make a mountain of mole hills and let the body do its job. The next few days my brain fresh out with my message instructed the body to do just that. Its all in the mind after all. Playing in water, watching the sunsets, hearing the laughter, loading up on delicious fare that included a full-on teppanyaki performance what with a beating heart and all, hammocking away to my hearts content, finishing up two beach-reads in quick succession and also breathing in the balmy ocean air made the horrid medical tourism experience fade away gently.
Lolling and frolicking in the beach makes the world melt away. The nights under the stars are way better than under the sea, but then it’s our habitat so no heavy oxygen cylinders to carry. We all have a purpose, a passion, we do eventually find it and such scary experiences bring us closer to our passions as we only then realise bluntly how fragile life is. It a matter of a second in my case a split second, however beautiful our surrounds may be or may not be, what matters is us. How we breathe, how we live, what we think and what we do. For now am breathing in deep and saying a thank you to my lungs who are and have been doing their job in their habitat. A vacay in any form is meant to do just that, saying a world of grace to ourselves, to our mind and body, for however wide we travel and what beauty in the world we see, the only beauty that matters to us or we should be really bothered about is in ourselves.
In the future though I may just choose the deep blue sea again, if it means a few following days of the balmy beach air, better than the devil ofcourse!