I Pinched Myself To Check I Was Really There

Maldives Promotion House – How many jobs have you ever held which allowed you to walk to work barefoot, snorkel with exotic fish on your lunch break, then lie on a jetty under a twinkling blanket of stars when the day was over?  It sounds like the stuff of fantasy, but this was the reality of my life when I worked in the Maldives as a teacher for Soneva Fushi in Baa Atoll, teaching English and grammar to resort staff.  It wasn’t all idyllic skipping along the beach with the sun on my face though, other then the glorious bits I’ve just tantalisingly described it was very hard work.

I worked six days a week, teaching a wide array of classes and three of those days involved finishing at eleven o’clock at night as this was the only time my boat crew students were free to learn.  But I didn’t resent it for a second because everyone who worked around me worked very hard.  It was truly a team effort.  The days were always long.  Many waiters did three shifts a day and whiled away the few hours in-between: resting, watching TV, ringing their families or playing football and volleyball.  Maldivians love their football and every boy I ever met had a team in the UK or Italy they fervently supported.  TV champas in the staff village would be packed to capacity with staff all gripped by a match happening somewhere.  It was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement. And if they weren’t watching it, they’d be playing it and encouraging guests to join in. The atmosphere was always great.

English teachers being employed in resorts are more common in the Maldives now.  But in 2002, I was still a bit of an experiment.  Six Senses has since then continued to employ English teachers throughout its properties to support the staff and help improve the guest experience.  Being a teacher in such stunning islands was one of the most unique experiences of my life.  And despite the dramas, the highs, the lows and the office politics that inevitably impinge on any job be it in London, Timbuktu, Papua New Guinea…or the Maldives – I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Maldivians are fantastic, unique, proud, generous people and as a teacher I visited local islands, other resorts and ate roshi and mas huni (thin chapattis and seasoned flaked tuna) and short eats (savoury snacks) with my students, went to parties, danced to the bodu beru (big drum) and said ‘dhani! (bye) at the end of the day when it was time to go to bed.

A few years ago, I went back to the Maldives as a tourist.  I went to Biyadhoo which has an amazing house reef where you can swim with turtles, manta rays and a million different fish; a veritable diver’s paradise.  It wasn’t uncommon to see guests putting on their snorkels at 6am.  I had a wonderful two weeks.  It all came back to me, the love of the food and my knowledge of the language.  I remember asking my waiter to please, pretty please, smuggle across some roshi and mas huni from the staff canteen.  I’d really missed it.  When the roomboys discovered I spoke a little Dhivehi, they were thrilled and would call out ‘ hala kin-eh?’ ( how are you?) when I passed by and linger for a little chat as they swept the sand out of my room.

I recently asked my friend Hassan Saeed from Fuvahmulah for the recipe for roshi as I want to try and make it at home.  I also miss the hot, sweet black tea, the fresh jelly coconuts, crushed watermelon juice and the tuna and yellow daal curry you could have as an islander’s breakfast.  Once you’ve lived and breathed in the Maldives it has seduced you for life and will never quite leave you.  Nor would I want it to.  Why on earth would I?  The night air of jasmine and frangipani has to be inhaled to be believed.  When you’re a city dweller used to nervously looking over your shoulder in the dark, it’s a huge relief to be in a place where you feel utterly safe with only the nightsounds of the jungle to accompany you.

I experienced many firsts in my time out there: showering outdoors, canoeing, sailing and I also learned to swim properly.  Above all else, snorkelling was my favourite new activity.  Kris Pereira, the patient and kind Sri Lankan watersports instructor, held my extremely shaky hand and took me out my first time.  And I learned to trust, to truly learn the meaning of trust, when we swam over a massive canyon which revealed a visible drop of some thirty feet below.  It terrified me as I have vertigo.  I held on tightly, convinced my life was in the palm of his hand.  The water immediately became much cooler and  opened out to shoals of colourful, exotic fish streaming beneath us, luminescent corals glowed and paddling serenely by, a giant sea turtle and there I was, a girl from London,  trying to contain her adrenaline-fuelled panic and mind-blown excitement on witnessing it all. It was an unforgettable moment for me. There is no ocean like the Indian Ocean.  It is a whole other world.  I fell in love that hour.

I spent a lot of my free time snorkelling and swimming when I wasn’t teaching or spending time with my fellow islanders.  I have swum in Thailand, Dubai, the Seychelles, the Algarve and Sri Lanka but I’ve been utterly spoilt by the Maldives.  Coming back to London and swimming in a chlorinated, pungent swimming pool was a bit depressing after enjoying the front crawl in azure blue waters!

Sometimes at the end of the day at Soneva, I would sit on the end of the jetty, gossiping with the boat-crew as they chewed betelnut and guests would join us and they’d ask how long I was staying.  ‘Oh I’m a teacher, I live here,’ I’d explain.  There would inevitably be a bit of a stunned silence and they’d comment on how lucky I was.  I would agree, I was very, very lucky indeed.  Believe me I never took it for granted.  Only a fool would do that.  For a girl with a love of the big blue ocean, the stars, the open clean air and perfumed waxy flowers; I knew when I answered the advertisement on TEFL.com and beat over five hundred other applicants to the role of a lifetime, I knew I was being very blessed.  And I did my best to remember it all as vividly as possible.  I wrote diaries and took many photos.

Sometimes life turned into the biggest soap opera imaginable, as is inevitable when your colleagues live and eat with you seven days a week.  But all it took was an amazing sunset, seeing the moon turn the ocean silver, a waft of the most exquisite perfume and I would honestly pinch myself to check I was really there.  I’d lie on a lounger and look up at the night sky and say, ‘don’t forget this moment.’  I was lucky enough to live in the most romantic place on earth.  If you ever get the opportunity to go to the Maldives, seize it with both hands.  You will never experience anything like it.  My memories will last forever and if you go there, I hope yours do too.

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