Finding Friendships in the Maldives

by Stephanie Brennan, Regional Sales Director

Stephanie stands outside one of the governmental buildings in Male
Stephanie stands outside one of the governmental buildings in Male

My husband, Mike, and I are two of a kind. We both love to travel, and we make a point of getting into the thick of any place we visit. No staying on the cruise ship for us while in port – we disembark, always ready for adventure, and somehow it always finds us.

Besides our family, travel is a major focus of our personal lives. We designed it that way. Early in our marriage, Mike had established an executive search firm – recruiting upper management executives for national companies, while I was working for a small technology company. I remember us driving in the car one day, listening to Jimmy Buffett on the radio, when Mike began urging me to find a job in the travel industry and that he’d help me “market” myself.  ”It’d be exciting,” he said, and “we’d get to travel in our spare time”.

Mike’s strategy turned out to be a good one. Before too long, I was happily working at a cruise line, which later became part of Princess Cruises, where I now hold a regional sales position.  In addition to a challenging career in an industry I love, we’ve certainly embraced the travel opportunities we’ve had. We’ve been to Beijing and Bangkok, Vietnam and Russia, across Europe and the Caribbean and up and down the coastlines of North and South America. We love it all, but when a new destination also brings a personal connection, the trip becomes even more meaningful to us.

It was an unexpected moment of friendship that made a brief, five-hour stopover on the tiny island of Male, which is situated in the remote Maldives Islands of the Indian Ocean, one of the more memorable travel experiences we’ve had.  The Maldives encompass 26 atolls, supporting a chain of 1,192 islands, of which only 200 are inhabited. The Maldives were on our cruise itinerary as just one of a few quick stops our cruise ship, Pacific Princess, would take between the major bookends of our cruise vacation : Mombasa, Kenya, and Mumbai, India.

We left Africa via the port of Mombasa, which reminded us of a scene in a Hemingway novel, with ceiling fans languidly turning above the hustle and bustle of porters and passengers below. As we boarded Pacific Princess for our cruise vacation across the Indian Ocean, we honestly figured that this part of the trip was downtime until we reached port in Cochin, India followed by Mumbai.

We spent two days in the Seychelles where the turquoise waters were like none we’d seen before.  Mike did some scuba diving while I enjoyed the beach and did a little shopping. Then we were back at sea for two more lazy days before our next stopover in the Maldives.

The good news was that the ship anchored in Male at 7 a.m. . . .  The bad news was that it was a national holiday of some sort and everything was expected to be closed until 1:00 pm, when Pacific Princess was scheduled to depart…

As usual, we didn’t let that get in our way, so Mike and I were the first off the ship, ready to explore.

However, no one was in town.  Except for a few guards ringing the huge and somewhat intimidating government buildings (the former palace of the sultans that used to rule the Maldives), the capital of Male seemed to be deserted. The streets were bare, the shops and restaurants shuttered. There was nothing to do but to walk the empty streets.

We still decided to make the most of it.  Looking around, Mike and I agreed that the island resembled a David Hockney painting.  The Indian Ocean was as mesmerizing as the crystalline blues of the chlorinated swimming pools that feature so vividly in Hockney’s paintings.  The buildings were predominately painted a shimmering white,  to reflect the 90-degree heat of the bright sun.  The silence, the heat and the blue-and-white landscape combined to produce a dreamlike state for us.

With not much to do, we went window shopping at a sports store and were suddenly joined by a little boy and his father.  The boy, who seemed about 6 years old, was mesmerized by the soccer ball in the window.

Both Mike’s and my career focus on sales, so without hesitation, we approached the man and his son and struck up a conversation.  I asked if the little boy liked to play soccer, and we were delighted to find that the father spoke perfect English.  We found out that he’d been a Merchant Marine for years, and had even lived in San Francisco and Washington State for a while. Mike used to live in San Francisco, and he and the man bonded over a discussion of Golden Gate Park.

We were enjoying the conversation and having some laughs when the man invited us to his home.  Being invited into someone’s home is an honor that doesn’t happen often during travel, let alone in a country like the Maldives, where our cultures are so different.  I think because we had struck up such a rapport with this man, he felt secure enough to extend the invitation and we were happy to accept.  We followed him through a series of narrow, maze-like alleys, past houses with open courtyards and open windows, to his home. There, we met his wife and other children.  We were really touched at how hospitable the family was, given that two Americans from California had just shown up at their house.

The wife served us coffee, tea and pastries. Then we sat down to chat and they shared some great photographs of his travels. After about half an hour, I mentioned how sorry we were to see that all the shops were closed for the day. Imagine our surprise when he said he owned one of those shops and he’d open it up just for us.

We then returnedto the shopping area, where he took us to his upstairs gift shop. It was a cheery place, filled with beads, bracelets and necklaces, carved pieces and other souvenirs.  He had shared with us that he had worked for 15 years as a Merchant Marine in order to save up for a small business, buy a home and start a family back in the Maldives. He kindly presented us with some bracelets for our daughter, Kimberly, and we in turn purchased many gifts for our friends and family.

Ever the capitalist, Mike told our host that there was a ship filled with passengers wondering what to do in Male on a sleepy holiday like this.

So out went the sandwich board, proclaiming the shop upstairs was open for business, and within 10 minutes, (we don’t know how they found it) the little shop was packed with our fellow passengers. We shopped around a bit longer and wished our suddenly busy friend thank you and good-bye. As we squeezed our way out of the shop, we saw that the stairway was packed with people waiting to get in. It would not surprise us if he had made a few thousand dollars that day.

Out on the street, we noticed the other shopkeepers had taken note. They were hurriedly opening their stores, too.   Within minutes, this little quadrant of Male was booming with commerce. As we left the shopping district and headed toward the port, the spell broke. We had re-entered that peaceful Hockney-esque landscape of still water and white buildings radiating the heat.

Although this event happened a few years ago, it is one that stands out when we think about our travels together. It serves as a reminder that when you’re open to new people, places and cultures, you open yourself up to new friendships, memorable experiences and great memories.  And things happen!

As Pacific Princess left Male toward Cochin, India, and other adventures to come, she came to a stop. The pilot guiding us out of the port had stopped Pacific Princess. From the bridge, we saw him lay out his prayer mat, face Mecca and kneel to pray.

We took that quiet moment to reflect as well. To us, travel means being adventurous and stepping outside of our comfort zone.  It’s about engaging the local residents and really listening to what they have to say. Travel is about the people you meet. You can go to many beautiful places, but it will always be the people you remember the most. They are the connections to those places.

As we watched the pilot finish his prayers, we realized that while our visit had briefly transformed the small island of Male into a bustling community, just as quickly, the island had returned to its own languid pace. Our moment had passed, but the connection we made with the shopkeeper friend and his family will never leave us. We like to think that he still remembers the two Californians who came to visit him too.