Maldives6: From Now On

Contemplating my last blog entry from the Maldives, I wanted to conjure up THE MOMENT from the trip, the quintessential experience, the big ah-ha. So hard. I’d seen so much and learned even more about myself.

But as I tried to come up with this moment, I found myself absently humming the chorus to From Now On, a tune from the movie musical The Greatest Showman. 

The movie wasn’t that big in the States, but let me be clear, it was HUGE in Britain. At least that’s what two of our friends on the boat told us, the two that knew the words to EVERY song on the soundtrack, and who would break into From Now On at the top of their lungs occasionally during our swims.

(Warning: it’s about to get real here, so cue the uncomfortable fidgeting.)

Swimming back to the dhoni after my mind-meld swim with the manta, I’d felt the tears rolling as I climbed up the swim ladder. I hadn’t realized until that moment I’d been crying. 

I walked to the bow of the boat, seeking a quiet place to be somewhat alone (alone as you can be on a small boat with 14 people). Everyone else was excited and talking, so I felt a little foolish and dramatic with the tears. 

I have made vulnerability my enemy for so long, yet when I let it in, it is the one true experience that always changes me for the better. Manta as metaphor: go deep and find peace.

Up in the bow, my Hugh-Jackman-loving friend had sought out the same quiet space. We’d discovered earlier in the trip that we’d both been through mutual grief and tragic loss: she with an unexpected and sudden death of a loved one; me with the senseless death of my brother-in-law in a random act of gun violence. 

There is no life experience stronger or faster in bringing people together than shared tragedy. 

She saw my tears and laughed; I saw hers and laughed. Then we cried some more, and laughed some more. No words passed. They weren’t necessary. I was so grateful for her.

I rarely talk about the shooting with friends, let alone complete strangers. Not only because it’s terrible, but because it changes the way people see you, and the way they treat you. 

I have found it is a burden that needs to be shared with discretion. Not everyone is strong enough to carry it.

But sometimes the fact that strangers are temporary makes sharing less risky. And in the wide open ocean, half a world away from my everyday life, there was room for the question, room for the risk, room to share the burden.

I never guessed someone else would be carrying the same burden on that trip. The circumstances of death were different, but our stories left the same heavy weight of grief on our shoulders. 

But it also left us with deeper reasons to laugh, to see the magnificent world, to feel the ocean around us, to dance and sing as loud as possible, and to watch for dolphin fins on the horizon.

There is such power in feeling understood.

The following night, after our last dinner and group pictures, Marni and I left for the airport. I was coming home tan (at least on one side; gotta get better at backstroke), I was stronger, and I was changed. 

I’d found space in this 52 year old body to grow, space to cry, space to imagine myself farther into the world, space to make a new friend for life, space to be brave.

Will I go back? I’d love to try, but I know it wouldn’t be the same. Every second that ticks creates a past that can never be relived, no matter how much we wish we could do it, or see them, again.

I am ready to make more deep blue salty memories. Maybe Belize next year?

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Maldives5: Manta as Metaphor

I’ve been dragging my feet with these last few entries. It’s been nearly a month since I was in the Maldives. I don’t want to lose my reasons for revisiting those warm blue memories.

The above pic was one of my favorite moments of the trip. It was our next-to-last day, and our swim guide said, “Before breakfast, we’re swimming with dolphins and mantas.”

Have you seen the Kristen Wiig character Super Excited Sue from SNL? That was me.

The next morning, we all showed up with snorkeling gear and piled in the dhoni in search of dolphin.

Our local guide on the bow would shout and point directions to the captain in the back, steering the boat toward whichever pod was closest. Then he would suddenly shout, “Dolphins! Get in now!” And we’d all throw ourselves off the boat and swim like mad toward the fins.

Not everyone would make it off the boat before our guide would then call out, “Wait! They’re too far away. We’ll go find another group.” And off the dhoni would go, leaving the group of swimmers that had just leapt out, bobbing around by themselves in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

I loved this so much! Not just the trust piece of both parties, but the sheer craziness of leaving those swimmers. That would never happen in America, land of the overly cautious and lawsuit-laden.

We were in and out of the boat multiple times in our quest, so I was part of the first group off and left behind, as well as the group that stayed on and got closer.

So close. The pods of bottle-nosed dolphin that swam under us were elegant, squeaky-chatty, and enviably free. They would roll their bodies slightly every once in awhile to check us out, with a look that said, “You call that swimming?” Then promptly leave us in their wake.

I also discovered that spiritually speaking, I’m more of a manta than a dolphin. Right when I thought I’d missed seeing a manta forever, one glided directly underneath me. I swam my ass off to keep up with it as it gently flew below me, barely moving its six-foot wing span.

The irony didn’t escape me. I was flailing on the surface trying to keep up, as the giant below me cruised effortlessly in deeper water, allowing me to follow. Manta as metaphor.

I have so much to learn.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Maldives4: All About the Fish

Rose early for tea on the deck this morning. At least I thought 6:30 was early. I keep forgetting this is a boat full of swimmers, so they all were up at 6AM, some doing yoga. Yay for them.

We anchored off a sand shoal, just a thin strip of white sugar in the middle of the ocean. Rahgandu Kandu. Nothing but terns and shells and coral. Yes, it looked just like the picture postcard in your head right now. 

The dhoni took us out about 3.5K from the shoal, and we swam back along the edge of two reefs and The Big Blue. Even saw an anemone with Nemo inside. 

The fish here are all about variety: big, small, colors, stripes, dots. Schools of black and yellow Moorish Idol fish swam by us in droves. 

I knew they were Moorish Idols because it was the one fish name I could recall from the vast list of species in a dive book we had on the boat. 

To entertain myself during our swims, I would give the fish I saw new names: Miami Drag Queen Fish, Box o’ Crayons Fish, College Football Team Saturday Jersey Fish, Upper West Side Fish, Aretha Franklin Fish (a fellow swimmer agreed with me on that one), Candy on Gramma’s Coffee Table that No One Ever Eats Fish, Police Do-Not-Cross Tape Fish.

Whoever thought of Moorish Idol wins the fish-naming contest. Hands down.

Our local swim guide would always draw a map of the route at the pre-swim briefing.

Second swim of the day was 1.5K, around the small island of Anbaraa and its lagoon. According to our local guide, the island was leased privately every year for a large music festival. But last year the party got out of hand, the music was too loud, and a few partying people drowned.

So the government revoked the lease, and now it’s available for anyone to enjoy, called a picnic island. 

Creepy story, gorgeous swim.

Finishing off our swim around Anbaraa, with our dhoni moored at the dock.

Dinner was a beach bbq back on Anbaraa, and the crew went all out for us. Candles in the sand led to the “table,” which was a life-sized whale shark sculpted out of sand. There was a small trench all around the shark to put our feet, and banana leaves served for seats.

It was impressive, as was the whole tuna on the bbq the crew had caught the night before. The food on the trip has been crazy good. More on that later.

Snorkel viewpoint of Anbaraa.

Afterward, we walked the empty beach, where thousands of hermit crabs moved around like ants on a sidewalk. So many! All different sizes and styles of houses carried on their backs.

Tomorrow we swim one long 5K in the morning. Nobody better be up doing yoga before 6:00.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Maldives3: Beginnings and Ends

I am wondering how long a body can sustain a constant state of awe.

After a big breakfast of omelettes, oddly shaped chicken sausages, and big circles of melted cheese (CHEESE!), we swam our first 3K. 

For every swim, we all pile in the dhoni (think Disney jungle safari-ride boat but more stylish) to our designated starting point, jump off, and swim back to the Sharifa. A kayak, second small dingy, and the dhoni follow for support. They also throw us bottles of water and something called Torq (orange Gatorade but more delicious) at stopping points. So thoughtful!

On this morning’s swim we headed to Fulidhoo island, over reefs with colorful fish surrounding us. We stopped on shore, had water and Torq, and watched 4 to 5 huge rays glide around our feet. Then it was another 1.2K back to the boat and cookies.

Still no assholes showing up in the group. 

After dinner tonight, we came up on deck to watch the stars. With nothing but ocean around us, the constellations came all the way down to the horizon. There was another island barely visible off in the distance, but other than that we were completely alone.

Of course in such a place, we started discussing death, and the eternal question of the existence of life after. I was sitting with three logical doctors, trying to get them to at least entertain the possibility of something beyond. 

Perhaps it is the beauty of this place, and our feelings of privilege and good fortune to be here, that bring up the question of its end. Or our own.

Either way it is necessary to ask, and there is room for the question here. 

After a short time, the conversation naturally turned to Celine Dion’s recent comeback. I’m starting to love these new friends just a little.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Maldives2: A Day of Firsts

MV Sharifa and MV TJ.

It’s 8pm and nearly everyone aboard the MV Sharifa has turned in, gone to their rooms below deck for a decent night’s rest. Understandable for those who flew in just this morning after horrendously long flights. It was a big day.

It’s always exhausting doing things for the first time. Today everything was new: from place to time zone to people. 

The people! Swimmers are the best type of folks. Easy going, always up for a challenge, and open if not downright friendly. As for day 1, I couldn’t find a single asshole among the 14 folks on the trip. And I’m judgy, so that’s saying something.

After coming onboard the boat (and some issues retrieving the anchor off the bottom), we left Male harbor for Guiradhoo Reef and our first swim.

Male harbor.

The color of the water here is the deepest blue I’ve ever seen salt water achieve. It’s the exact color of blue raspberry KoolAid. Or blue curacao. No kidding. It’s also extremely salty.

Our first swim was strictly an acclimatization swim, so just three laps of a designated triangle, meant to see everyone’s speed and skill level. There was a bit of reef, and so many fish it was hard to stay focused. 

We all had a touch of anxiety to “perform,” but as with every swim, once we’d finished and gotten out of the water, we were a united whole. No one cared about who returned first, or who finished last.

I’ve always loved water’s ability to bring a group together. I see it every year at the Whidbey Adventure Swim. Everyone’s nervous beforehand, but once out of the water, everyone’s friends with everyone else.

Back aboard the Sharifa, we all showered off at the back of the boat, and stood around in our drippy swimsuits drinking tea, chatting, and wolfing down cookies.

Ahh, the cookies! A variety pack of creme-filled, wafers, and shortbreads, we went through at least two full boxes after every swim. And it didn’t matter that they had a strange aftertaste, like they’d been stored next to the frozen shrimp.

Water is a sacrament in nearly every known religion. It signals change, rebirth, or a coming together. And while I personally have issues with religion itself, I love watching this process happen, the bringing together and melding of a group around water. 

Tomorrow we swim a 3K in the morning, eat lunch, and then swim a 2K in the afternoon. There better be a damn lot of cookies on this boat.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Maldives1: Acclimatization

Outside our hotel in Hulhumale.

We arrived last night in Male at 10:30 PM, local time. Door to door, it took us 28 hours of travel time. The 16-hour flight to Singapore wasn’t as bad as we expected; must’ve been all that joyful wellness in the food.

We took a taxi to our beachfront hotel, dropped our luggage, then took a short walk around. The air was tropics-thick and warm, and much of the area around our hotel looked to be under construction or abandoned mid-project.

Construction seen outside our hotel bathroom window.

At dawn I woke to the sound of a long thin whistle, then far-away music. It took me a moment to realize this was the Muslim call to prayer, which is broadcast across the city.

After breakfast, before meeting up with the bigger SwimTrek group and guides, Marni and I took a walk on the beach. Women wearing burkas (as required by Muslim-country law) were swimming with their children. We also saw bikini-clad tourists on the same beach, either ignoring or ignorant of the laws in the Maldives.

A Muslim woman watches her son swim.

I’m uncertain how a Muslim country in a tropical destination, which relies heavily on tourism, can enforce a law requiring women’s bodies to be covered. All I know is we were sweating like rain spouts in our thin long pants and tee shirts. It’s a fascinating conundrum to be sure.

Sign at left says no bikinis allowed on beach.

Excited to meet the swim group and get on the boat! Today is the acclimatization swim, also known as “How Do You Measure Up?” Hoping for middle of the pack. Either way, I’m anxious to be out of the city and to get on that blue blue water.

Maldives! Being in the Here

NOTE TO READERS: Complete postings of the trip will be up as soon as WiFi is available and reliable. Sure, I could buy a SIM card and spend a lot of time trying to get posts up through spotty reception on the boat. But as the title above implies, I’d rather be fully present in the Here, than wrestling technology. Thanks for the understanding. See you soon!

ON THE PLANE— Padraig O’Tuoma says it’s really all we have, The Here. He loves simple words that express the most complicated of things, and this is one of the reasons I love him. 

I’ve been looking forward to this swim vacation in the Maldives for 4 months now. Originally, a good swim-friend and I were booked on a trip to the British Virgin Islands. The company cancelled our trip due to not enough swimmers, but as consolation offered us a 7-night swim trip on a live-aboard dive boat, swimming twice a day among the atolls and reefs in the Maldives. 

Twist my arm.

I’ve been packing for the last three days. I wouldn’t recommend it. I had way too much time to worry about The Things. Things to bring, things not to bring. 

Forget second-guessing, I got to fifth or sixth guessing: tinted or untinted goggles; three swimsuits or four; half-deflated yoga ball for the 16-hour flight to Singapore; one tube of sunscreen or two; is this skirt long enough to wear in a Muslim country?

Now I’m finally on the plane, and the Things don’t matter. The seat between my friend and I is wonderfully vacant (so many pillows!), and the six-page menu just delivered into our hands includes a lunch main course described as: “a simple and joyful wellness selection.” 

Honestly, could anyone NOT order a selection of joyful wellness? And yes, I double-checked, we’re in row 56, smack-dab in Ecomonyland. Thanks Singapore Air!

Being in the Here. We have 16 hours and 40 minutes of airplane Here to Singapore, then another four hours to Male International. 

We’re one hour in and everything’s going great!

This week at home, my daughter is getting ready to swim at districts for the first time. Before leaving I placed an inspirational quote under her bathroom light switch, which she’d see every day. Simple words, complicated meaning:

Nothing Behind Matters. 

—TJ Wiley Forsyth