Volume 6 part 018 Without Man-Friday
Kuoni came good yet again. “Two for one” ,no single supplement and now accepting air miles earned from a NatWest visa credit card secured three weeks in the Maldives inclusive of helicopter transfer from the Capital, Male to the remote Ari Atoll and all for £608 full board.
“All inclusive” hadn’t arrived in the islands at that time. Everything was imported. Alcohol was only allowed on exclusively resort islands with the outcome being that a can of Heineken costing one pound and a gin and tonic rather more than the cost of purchasing the neighbouring island. This was not just another long haul flight. It was a charter flight. It was a charter flight that refuelled in Abu Dhabi which boasted duty free at give-away prices.
The maltreatment inflicted by Thomas Cook in a fifteen hour flight would have seen an equivalent tin-pot dictatorship being hauled-up in front of the European court of Human rights. Thomas Cook had not signed-up to the international convention against torture. It’s never ceases to amaze how much masochism the average tourist will endure to experience an exotic holiday for a tenth of the price of a reasonably priced family saloon.
Unlike Hong Kong and Rio which have oceans at one end of the runway, Male (capital of the Maldives) boasts water at both ends. Arse clenching is obligatory for those not so numb that they could actually feel their arse. Two hundred and forty two shaky, unkempt and largely unshaven passengers descended a rickety step ladder as bedraggled as if they had crossed Europe in a cattle car. Eight passengers were pulled from the single line of half humanity that extruded its way out of the Perspex staircase canopy offering absolutely no protection from the blinding early morning sun rise. These were the chosen few. The eight would avoid the ordeal of up to three hours of motor launch transfer to their selected resort island by being flown by personal helicopter to their island paradise.
The “chosen people” would have, at the very least, a two hour head start at grabbing the best sun beds and commandeering the best tables. I would be showered and shaved and sipping from a tropical cocktail as we waived the sea-sick hoy-palloy ashore.
The good news was that they served complimentary chilled orange juice in the largely card-board Helicopter terminal. The bad news was that there was no helicopter. The boat had literally, already sailed. A terminally anti-social deep sea diver had apparently cut himself to shreds on coral attempting to avoid the amorous advances of a passing shark. Ours was the only helicopter available to execute a very inconvenient rescue mission. The offer to bunk up in a supply boat involving an extended detour around the islands fell on deaf ears. In compensation we got a tour of the capital. All four miles square of it! There was no need to wait for a tour-bus for a trek on perfectly flat landscape.. We saw the mosque but weren’t allowed inside. We saw the local brewery which produced fruit juice. We dined on coconut and mango. Coconut trees are a protected species in the Maldives yet we must have eaten at least a couple between the eight of us.
The good news was that the helicopter had found the diver. The bad news was that Helicopters aren’t allowed to fly in the dark. We had just under two hours of daylight to unload the dripping diver, clean up the residue of his bodily fluids, and get out to the Atoll with enough time for the Helicopter to return to base. Who cared if he got back! As soon as it landed the tourists stormed the ancient Russian rip-off of a Sikorsky search-and-rescue. The patient went out the port side as we mounted through the starboard. The bags could follow any time. We had already endured over two days in the same underwear and most could tell! The captain took little persuasion to stay out on the island for the night as our guest if it got too late for his return trip. In exchange he loaded the bags.
The sun was low on the horizon as we descended towards the jetty which served as a make-shift landing pad. A small heavily populated white-sand beach lay alongside. Blinded by the setting sun, we managed to get within close range of the sun bathers before those who had taken up residence on the front row experienced the downdraft from a former military transport plane with the finesse of a trip in a twin tub washing machine. The flying sand scoured away what sun-burn they had managed in the two hours since disembarking from their motor launch. The boat-people had taken up pole position to gloat. Those that made it off the beach were chased by the very deck chairs they had vacated. Eight Hours late, but the “fliers” still might get the front row!
The rotor finally came to a safe stop. A charming Mauritian greeted us. We nodded politely having missed every word due to the temporary deafness brought about by sitting for twenty five minutes under a forty year old disintegrating aircraft engine straight out of a home spun, sweat shop in the Caucasus and totally devoid of sound insulation. There were no “Alberts”. Everyone had to fend for themselves. Half a dozen tee shirts and a few sun shorts take little unpacking. The brochure said leave everything at home for a stay in paradise where going casual was mandatory. For the first time, I had bravely travelled without my Burberry.
I was on the sea shore overlooking the blue lagoon and sipping the G&T by the time the sun finally set fire to a still but vast and empty ocean. It was magical. Slowly, the moon rose over my second G&T. As I looked up at its full shiny face It dawned on me that not only was it looking back at me but everywhere in the world where it was now dark friends and neighbours would also be looking up at the moon and in turn it would be smiling down on them. Like a great mirror in the sky it was uniting me with everyone I knew anywhere in the world.
Gin and Tonic has the ability to bring out the philosopher in us all.
It took a further G&T for my second epiphany and the resounding realisation of being eaten alive. The sand flies were feasting on everything below the knee line. The brochure waxed lyrical about the romantic sun-sets. It said nothing about ravenous sand flies.
Turning towards the clearing in front of the main reception area I could see that the dining room was already almost full to capacity. Food was served by the sitting. There was only one sitting. Tables are invariably laid out in even numbers. A solo traveller requires at least one other “odd” person to make up pairs. The odder the better. Not unlike a cruise and school dinners, tables were allocated upon arrival. Where you sat the first night is where you sat for the rest of your stay. “Table sir? …convivially inquired the tiny Sri-Lankan host. “Table for one please!” was met with more than cursory condescension. The brochure said it was a “Robinson Crusoe Experience” where you could, and should, leave your wallet behind. Someone had failed to inform the maître-de. In the absence of a fat first night tip I got the last place on a table for eight right in the middle of an open sided thatched barn. There were no external walls. Why provide walls in a tropical paradise devoid of air conditioning? The romantic ambience was intensified by the exposed one-hundred-and-fifty watt tungsten bulbs industrially suspended above each table. The illumination was sufficient to see clearly what you were eating whilst simultaneously attracting protein supplements in the form clouds of flying bugs of all shapes and sizes. Looking up beyond the horizontal was not an option. Eye contact with fellow diners was inevitable. Only the eclipse created by the hovering fruit bats making light of the moths and mosquitos mitigated the prospect of irreparable snow blindness. Bats shit large and often.
I was squeezed in between a man purporting to be something senior in the army and a newlywed woman who worked for the BBC. The army guy was about my age. He was accompanied by his rather handsome, raven haired, overly buxom wife celebrating their 25th Wedding Anniversary. The Woman from the BBC was enjoying her second honeymoon. She worked as a film extra and her over-ripe husband a camera man. The newly-weds had brought along her best-friend and maid-of-honour, for company which accounted for the odd number on the table. Opposite was a dental technician from Rotherham immediately adjacent to his much younger “friend” named Jason. The “friend” was a screaming-queen with far too much make-up covering more surface area than his scant clothing. A shrieking voice was no doubt a consequence of his shrink wrap denim “daisy duke” hot pants and the principle cause of shrill hysteria. The older one appeared quite normal except for his penchant for the boys. He lavished more attention on the waiters than he did on the food although understandable given that the whole menu originated from a can and was served up in equal dollops from an enormous Bain-Marie protected from the fruit bats by draped wire netting. The tinned stew and dumplings hardly complemented the climate. Given that the “May” deals were skirting the onset of the monsoon the outside temperature was exceptionally warm even after sun-down. Two tone blancmange, served up for pudding confirmed the menu had been robbed from some second rate Comprehensive School in somewhere like Slough. Coincidentally, the Chef came from Reading but argued that due to import logistics, a lack of refrigeration and the imagination of a spawning tree frog, he had little to work with. The opportunities afforded by an abundant ocean on all four sides appeared to have been missed! Fish was never on the menu although that implies there was a menu when meals comprised of the difference between what was put on the plate without choice or the same thing which had missed the plate and greedily carried away by a team of highly accomplished cock-roaches. Given that the army guy had been raised on army cooking, the soldier exhibited almost as much contempt for the food as he did for the couple from Rotherham when I thought he would be well acquainted with both.
A good start to three weeks on a desert island with no hope of rescue.
We’d been marooned for at least a week before it dawned on me that the Jason and his sugar daddy might be “Gay”. I simply thought the couple good fun and the former “bridesmaid” also game for a laugh. By night-two, the third wheel from the BBC three piece wedding party had gravitated to sit directly by my side. This left everyone, self-included, wondering whether the lone lady from the BBC was making a move on me or simply protecting the privacy of her twice married mate. This was a cosy arrangement with the exception that she brought along two additional friends. A pair of lesbians had not been happy seated on a perimeter table otherwise monopolised by a group of Mancunian pensioners. They decided to gate-crash the banter being broadcast from the centre table. The army guy now had two butch lesbians from Glasgow to add to his list of what constitutes a holiday from hell.
By now I’d stopped scratching the sand fly bites, having noticed that the colonel had made no attempt to shift his thigh the previous night every time my right arm lunged under the table to relieve the discomfort. We spent an entire meal with his hairy left leg welded by sweat to my hairy right leg. Neither of us protested which is as well given that the table now accommodated ten. His wife thought it was a bit of boys will be boys. Camaraderie was his big thing. I guess I was supposed to be watching his back! The three of us became good friends in the bar until slowly realigning their allegiance to the Mancunian octogenarians.
As the holiday progressed, the “scream-queen” became increasingly outrageous with his application of multi-layered make-up competing with the undressing for dinner. The older one was a quintessential “Straight”, clad each night in a range of newly pressed Bermuda shorts and complementary polo shirts. The more he pressurised his younger companion into joining “hetero-land” the more extreme and revealing the boy became culminating in a series of threadbare overstressed cut-offs he must have first worn at primary school and which disguised few of his questionable attributes.
Unlike the public spaces, the bungalows enjoyed perimeter walls, albeit very thin perimeter walls. Privacy was in short supply. From domestic outbursts, through nocturnal acrobatics to the “dawn chorus” that preceded sunrise and symphonic toilet flushing, nothing went unnoticed. From the noise emanating from the adjacent bungalow, I was totally convinced for the whole of the first week that Ms Solo from the BBC had a thing for mangos. On one particular night outside my thatched cottage where I was gunning insect repellent around my bedroom door, I noticed a few native boys patiently loitering on the next terrace, some twenty or so meters away lit only by the moonlight reflecting from the gently rippling ocean. She wasn’t greedy, selecting only one or two a night. The discussion at dinner the following evening was as candid as it was illuminating. It transpired that she didn’t like mangos. Slurping was all part of the performance. Ladies always swallow! The brigadier stared into his blancmange in disbelief.
How we laughed!
Lost in the moment, the dental technician from Rotherham confessed to sharing the same taste in native boys and hopefully would be joining her in a bit of synchronised “head” later that evening. He hadn’t noticed the silence that by now blanketed the entire dining room as the whole tour-group became engrossed in our revelations. What an ice breaker. Confessions became increasingly lewd as the night progressed.
We swam with sharks. Snorkelling at the edge of the lagoon became a daily ritual. A flat bottomed boat took us to the point where the turquoise water gave way to the midnight blue. The sea floor fell away beneath us as if hang-gliding off an Alpine cliff. At the very edge of the precipice the sea bed was teaming with life over a swaying carpet composed of a myriad of vibrant shimmering colours too varied to describe or imagine. When accompanied by sharks the advice was not to panic! “Simply take a gentle turn away and ideally submerge. Sharks only bite on the way up … not on the way down”.
This advice would have been more convincing had the mouth sporting a head full of razor-sharp teeth been on top of the shark as opposed to being on the underside thereby rendering this tip somewhat implausible. A small group of us determined that the only safeguard against a shark attack was, in fact to panic. Panic big-style, but only when in the company of one of the old “biddies” striking one off from their “Bucket list” and hope that she wasn’t a former Olympic gold medallist. The pensioners became very useful swimming companions, never once figuring out that far from the younger crowd showing them a good time, they were simply shark-bait decoys. Remember… when encountering a bear in the woods, it is your mate you need to be able to outrun and not necessarily the bear! On the only occasion I came to put theory into practise I collided with a fellow snorkeler veering slowly left in the precise trajectory in which I was turning right. I very nearly shit myself which in hindsight, may have proved a suitable deterrent. We both dived a short distance until the sharks passed above us before entering into a frenzied elbowing contest at the foot of the cat-ladder in our mutual eagerness to not be the last one to escape the water. The fat lady resembling a Brighton sea front post card was well put-out by my overt display of twentieth century chivalry, declining my attempt to assist her sun burnt husband to haul her clear of the surf … Essex people can be like that!
No laughs there then!
As discovered first hand by the diver who had hijacked my helicopter, coral is razor sharp. Don’t swim out to sea over a coral reef when the tide is ebbing. If you can’t swim back due to the water becoming too shallow, you sure as hell aren’t walking back! The diving coach had a gate. A “gate” is a valley in the coral allowing unrestricted passage out into the ocean irrespective of the level of the tidal flow. The instructor guided us through the gate into the open waters of the Indian Ocean where nothing lay between us and Madagascar. Way down below, an apparition resembled the fuselage of a submerged ‘747. The shiny grey, bubbling cylinder moved! Maybe it was a sub’? The hulk slowly surfaced. Our surprise subsided into a state of catatonic shock.
We were involuntarily swimming with a whale shark.
Not a shark at all, but a giant whale the diving instructor estimated to be twenty five meters in length. Having a mouth the size of a couple of industrial wheelie-bins offered little comfort from his assurance that they were not carnivores. She winked at us as she silently glided on her way. We all got the “T- Shirt”. In four years of diving in the Maldives it was the instructor’s first encounter with a whale shark. He was thrilled, but then again he did come from Denmark where stirring sugar into a coffee cup is considered living the wild life. I don’t take sugar in coffee.
I spent most days secreted well away from the bungalow area, and on the eastern side the island in a clearing opening to the sea and equipped with a hammock strung between two palm trees. Intermittently, columns of off duty servants dressed in off duty shorts and off-duty T-shirts would pass by in regimented lines each carrying coconut matting hold-all’s and with seemingly no place to go on the tiny atoll. Out of curiosity I followed one of the troupes to the southernmost tip of the island where to my surprise they took to the water like an evacuation of Dunkirk. Carrying their worldly goods on their heads they gradually disappeared below the waves until all that could be seen was a lump of coco matting balanced on a tiny black globe. Their glistening brown bodies gradually resurfaced a mile or so away to redress on the shores of the neighbouring island almost lost in the heat haze and to which I had previously been oblivious. The house-boys literally walked to work daily although only in the summer months when the sea was calm. They were unemployed during the rainy season when the island was closed to tourists and when the crossing would have needed a boat. Native women weren’t allowed any exposure to tourists. On the one occasion I hired a Kayak with the intention of paddling around the island and maybe visiting the neighbours I got as far as the start of the underwater causeway before being blown backwards to the starting point under the decking which was overlooked from the bar. I gave up the attempt at circumnavigation after re-emerging from the headland in reverse for the third try. Although proving too much of an embarrassment, my perseverance had managed to provide some much needed entertainment for the pensioners enjoying their mid-afternoon fruit cocktails and who by now and to offset the monotony had resorted to taking bets on my projected progress.
The monsoon arrived on schedule and as expected to justify the cheap £608 price tag for a three week stay. By the end of the second week it was raining offering a welcome respite from the searing heat. By the end of the third week the deluge was unrelenting. Hailstones the size of tennis balls were no match for the indiscriminate coconuts they dislodged. Tropical scenery was reduced to flickering monotones filtered through rain-water streaming from the bamboo thatched roofs like a veil draped across the open facades to the public rooms of where desolate tourists gathered for mutual support at a pound per can of Heineken. To break the monotony the concierge commissioned a fishing boat to take any intrepid volunteers to a neighbouring island to have a snoop. Devoid of house-boys who hadn’t made the channel crossing for over a week we would probably kid-nap the odd half dozen and get the beds made as a bonus. The absence of a landing jetty upon arrival necessitated wading chest deep from the boat to the shore. No problem as we were already soaked and unlike the rain, the sea-water was relatively warm. I volunteered portering duties to the Bridesmaid and the two lesbians but drew the line at carrying the “African Queen” from Rotherham for fear of not knowing where to put my hands. The natives stayed out of sight other than a couple of the boys who worked behind the bar in our resort coming out to say hello without extending an invitation to take refuge in their hovel. There were no anticipated olde-worlde rip-off tourist attractions lying in wait to extort soggy dollars in exchange for overpriced tat destined for a box in the loft. We sailed home desolate and dejected taking refuge from the increasing sea swell under the slatted seats inside the open sided flatbed barge. The bridge playing pensioners took great delight in having “told us so”…
The remaining time oscillated between reading and Heineken. Only a select few joined us in the bar each day. The pensioners had polished off the gin and other than those from the high table at dinner, most of the in-mates weren’t prepared for the pound-a-can surcharge for a beer. It was quicker, and infinitely more convenient to divest yourselves of clothes for the twenty-meter dash to the “bog” than get shorts and tee shirts wet in the unrelenting downpour. The bar boys obliged with dry towels on the return dash. They also organised a disco restricted by local law and custom to daylight hours. The event was a great success being entertained by a dozen or so topless gardeners doing their improvisation of a Club 54 go-go jamboree. The dental technician had sought solace in my company being the only unattached white male on the island. We compared notes on which of the troupe was the cutest. For him this was validation and acceptance whilst for me, purely an aesthetic judgment to pass the time. A beer, even if it is Heineken helps to liberate the inhibitions. The brigadier became quite jealous of this unexpected bonding. His wife slept a lot. The screaming queen stayed home most days. A football match organised by the dental technician between staff and tourists was a literal wash-out. Four tourists, including the female BBC bombshell and the two Lesbians were thrashed by a posse of local boys who all looked the same and clearly had no rules governing substitution. I kept score picking up an animal bite on my right foot in the process. I had been home a week before the wound showed any signs of infection. I reneged on my promise to send the natives a set of football strip bearing the GTD company logo.
The helicopter gave me an extra three hours for a leisurely breakfast the morning we left for the airport. I waived then all good bye at sun rise as their launch sped off through choppy seas into the bright blue yonder. The weather was dry for our departure. Staff were using the unexpected break in the weather to stack the cane furniture into neat rows as a precursor to the seasonal close down. Little ships ferried out surplus domestics away from the island, swapping their digs for incoming maintenance workers. I said my goodbyes until next year with no intention of ever returning and to be reunited with the high table in an open air bar at the airport some forty minutes later.
The tour group boarded the plane already looking worse for wear with matted hair and flashes of pallid skin intermingled with sun scorched highlights. An early start, sea sickness, salt spray and compression of the spine had prepared them for a very bumpy flight. The “boat people” had managed to grab all the best seats by the time the chosen few hit the airport. I bought presents at the duty free in Abu Dhabi for the folks back home expecting them to smile politely at receiving the home dyed sarongs patterned by what can only be described as primary school potato printing or some piece of hand painted driftwood hacked into the shape of a mythological deity more frequently re-produced en-masse in a Shanghai sweat shop.
Some weeks after we returned home to Sheffield I met the dentist for drink in the Nursery Tavern on Eccelsall road. He was still with the drama queen but only just! We went back to my pent-house flat overlooking Endcliffe Park for coffee. If he’d have made a move, I was resigned not to resist. I quite liked the guy. He was well dressed and polite. Nothing happened but, as to be expected, I probably missed the signals. It was a further six years before I actually did anything about the “fatal” attraction but this time it wasn’t an attempt at a fling. The next time would be for keeps even though he wasn’t well dressed and has never been polite.