Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Slow Steady Acceptance of Island Life

As predicted, I find myself growing closer and closer to this place. Perhaps overnight, on a sweaty stroll around the island, or chasing the local kids around with shouts of “hello, Hello, HELLO!” I have fallen for this tiny island. Not exactly head over heels or love at first sight, but a simple bond, or attachment has developed. The very least that can be said is that I no longer hate it unconditionally. Sure, I still have a daily counter for my departure date (14 days till I leave the Maldives.) But it is no longer highly anticipated, as before. Instead, I have become engrossed with this simple island life. I have begun to accept the things I cannot change, and go with the flow.

I am not a creature of routine. I am not a believer of the saying, “only boring people get bored.” Now, especially after living on this island. Normally, I will complain and complain and complain until someone physically threatens me to stop whining about how bored I am (Yes, I know I am annoying sometimes, but boredom and myself do not get along.) Routine… monotony… ugh.

But the monotony of Naifaru has actually begun to comfort me. I cannot explain why I have suddenly released the perpetual attitude toward boredom in Naifaru. Maybe I have come to realize that I am half way through my experience here, and no matter what I do, it will not change. There is nothing to do on the island, but there has never been anything to do on this island. It is not as though I am bored because I choose to be. I am bored because boredom is part of the island life. It is part of the island culture that I have begun to let in. The island life that is beginning, even slowly, to change who I am and how I see the world.

Every morning, regardless of my plans to sleep late, I wake up between 7 and 8. I then lay around, stretching and reading from the books I brought with me, even though I have already read most of them three or four times. I wait for Deen to text me about heading to the breakfast house, where Lucia greets us warmly. We eat toast, chocolate spread, and egg, with a delicious coffee every morning, while Lucia’s 7 year-old son, Naikko, taunts us in his mangled English. After breakfast, we head to Juvenile where Deen teaches a one-hour IT class to students between ages 8 and 13. I thoroughly enjoy these relatively lazy mornings, even if I dreaded the routine for the first few days. The rest of the day marches on in a slow, steady, predictable fashion.

Prayer comes 5 times a day. It’s part of the five pillars of Islam, and even though most Naifarians are “Burger King” Muslims, the island at least respects those who do ACTUALLY pray. That being say, between 5 and 6, 12 to 1, 3 to 4, 6 to 8 (2 prayers) all the stores, restaurants, and community activities cease to respect the religious. At first, I was frustrated with these perpetual store closings. Now? I rarely use time anymore. I have come to accept that Naifarians operate not on the numbers of a clock but on the sunrise, sun down, hunger, and prayer time. If I am curious about the time, I just peek my head out the window to see where the sun is in the sky and whether the shops are open or closed.

Okay, that's not exactly true. 

I am still a stickler for promptness. And I still live life by the numbers of the clock. But no longer is this so definitive for me. When someone says to meet at 9:00, I will aim to arrive at promptly 9:15. I will still be early, undoubtedly, but I'm still making the effort to adapt the relaxed island life.

Then there is the staring. It has never really bothered me, don't get me wrong. Surviving one year in rural Japan has taught me that human nature is all about curiosity. People are generally interested in something different, novel, something they have never seen before and can not fit in their tiny schema of the world. What bothered me about the staring in Naifaru is that people did not stare at me out of curiosity. The stares were deeper, and the creases besides the eyelids made them look angry. My perception was that the Naifarians regarded me suspiciously, as something new and progressive. Something that would change their life as they knew it. Well, since I am here to stay for the next few weeks, they are going to have to learn to get over it. When I get these angry stares, I turn to them and smile, sometimes waving. I'll show you change.

Sure enough, these angry looks often become soft smiles. I even sometimes get a, "Hello!"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

One Fat Island

“You’ve become fat.”

What the hell? Deen, seriously, do you know nothing about girls? Even oddball American girls who don’t follow convention? I get it, when Sri Lankans convert their language into English; they take the sharp cutting rudeness with it. But seriously? Ouch. 

Now, normally, I would have taken this opportunity- being accused of gaining weight rapidly- as the time to whine about my recovering eating issues, being a vegetarian in a country that only eats meat, how I have not been able to run because of student teaching and now Maldives, etc. But instead, I was just pissed off. If looks could kill, Deen would be 6 feet under right now.

Sure, I was- am- pissed off at Deen for calling me fat. But more importantly, I am pissed off at the situation. There is no reason for me to gain weight here. I cannot eat anything here because it is too spicy. So I am forced to eat ONLY the following items: bread, tuna, chicken, chocolate spread, coffee, coke, and water. (I realize these are not exactly the healthiest choices, but these are the ONLY healthy choices I have on this island.) That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. I eat three meals a day. Breakfast, which usually consists of 3 pieces of toast, chocolate spread, and an egg. Lunch and dinner consists of 2 tuna or chicken sandwiches. I drink probably about 2 cokes as well during the day. Not healthy, but I have no other options. And still not enough to make me fat.

So, why the heck have I gained weight? (Or have I gained weight?)

Because I had weight on the brain, as I trudged my fat-ass home after Deen’s accusation, I began to notice things. On Naifaru, with a small population of about 4400, there is an exceptionally high percentage of obesity. Children are okay, but the women are almost entirely overweight collectively as one gender. It seems as though every woman over the age of 25 has gotten together and decided to carry around an extra 40 to 70 pounds of weight. It is a really daunting sight to see.

It is not really hard to put the blame on something.

The island has absolutely no means to sustain itself in food production other than fishing. Tuna is delicious, but it is impractical to eat the dish that also provides most of these families their livelihood. The food these people have access to almost entirely comes from cans, to survive the long shelf life and transportation between the islands. To illustrate this: not one single person in Naifaru has ever had fresh milk. They have to make milk powder, which is some seriously nasty stuff.

The have a lot of rice dishes, which are delicious, but inedible to me. Deen says that when he has witnessed me tempt fate and eaten something spicy, he can see my face turn bright red and apparently the color on my tongue changes for 2 days (not sure how he noticed that, or why, but I don't ask these silly Asians these things.) But eating rice everyday is nowhere near healthy either. 

If you think Americans have sweet tooth’s, Maldivians have it far worse. The school children lunch packed from home consists of: Milo, or chocolate milk (made form that crappy milk powder of course,) chips, some sort of rice dish, chocolate wafers, and candy. Even in the poorest families, these are the staple lunches of the kids. All of these things are prepackaged, bought at stores, and sent here via the night ferries that transport goods from the capital to all the atolls in the Maldives.

I am not saying my lunch was any better when I was school kid, but at least I had choices. In 2nd grade, I ate a tuna fish sandwich everyday with a juice box and bag of chips. Not exactly healthy, but now with America's movement towards healthy lunches in school, I guarantee at least some students have carrot sticks and fresh fruit. They have the choice. Maldivians do not have that choice. It is not even that healthy food is expensive. But it is IMPOSSIBLE to get fresh food. Not a single store on the island sells fresh milk, I have never seen fruits or vegetable in a grocer stand, and there is no concept of fresh and healthy here. They get what they can buy at a store: prepackaged, filled with preservatives, junk food.

I am a vegetarian. I eat VERY healthy normally, except my ultimate vice, chocolate, which I am ashamed to say I eat by the tons. But I normally have a well-balanced diet. I love any and all vegetables, and eat salad at least once a day if I can. I eat vitamin-enriched food, with fruit and carbs. I also used to a hard-core runner, which I after 4 months of rest, I am ready to get back into. The only other places I have lived have had exceptionally healthy food: in France, I had a health-conscientious  host mom who loved to make nutritious and delicious meals; in Japan, well, I do not really know ANY Japanese food that is bad for one's health.

I think that's why I look like I have gained weight.

Every night thus far I have gone to bed with a stomach ache. I have tried to pin point exactly what Maldivian dish has done with to me by cutting things out: the milk powder, the tuna, the ketchup, the coke, but to no avail. It's a combination of everything. My body is not used to eating the same stuff over and over again, all with little nutrition.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Community Fashion Show

Headscarves on the catwalk?

Traditional techno with an Arabic twist?

Welcome to the first annual Fashion Stars, a fashion exhibition on the teeny tiny conservative Muslim island of Naifaru, in the Maldives!

The staff of Naifaru Juvenile, as well as Deen and myself, dedicated our weekend to putting together this show. It was held at the conclusion of the first-ever sewing class sponsored by Juvenile. Even though, to my developed nation mindset, I could not understand how a sewing class could benefit the community as a whole. However, I now understand that the sewing class was one of the best things that could possibly come to the Naifaru community. It has given women a skill, besides cooking and having a family. All the local tailors have to be brought in from India, and now women can start making their children’s clothes without having to buy the ridiculously overpriced clothes that they sell at some of the shops. It is part of the baby steps taken by areas to develop: progress through giving the people a skill to find employment.

The fashion show started with a short children’s festival at 4 on Saturday evening. Then after evening prayer, the adult fashion show began at 9. We knew before hand that many island people would not come to the event. After all, everyone here is technically a conservative Muslim, and the religion does not allow the promotion of women in the manner that the fashion show would require. Of course, the women would be allowed to wear their headscarves, but they would still have to strut around stage attracting the attention of... men! 

But, even though it was only expected that 100 people would come, over 400 people came out to each event! I suspect the main reason for this is that most people out their religious beliefs aside for the evening. It happens to be summer vacation for the students, and there is absolutely nothing to do on Naifaru. Why not go for one night to a Fashion Show to enjoy oneself? 

At the event, I was lucky to see some of my students and to meet their parents. I got a lot of compliments from parents about how excited their children were to speak English. Of course, I could not help but notice that most people still stared at me with suspicion. What is an random arbitrary white girl doing on this underprivileged island in the middle of the Indian Ocean? But I have gotten over the stares of suspicion. I just smile at them and wave. It usually throws them off.

The nicest thing, however, was the sense of community felt by all at the event. People came out with their children to see the fashion show. You could see old friends coming together to share stories. People handing their newborn babies to complete strangers while they chased after their older children. Kids cheering on their classmates as they strolled up and down the catwalk. Women shining with pride as they received their certification as skilled sewers, only to watch some of their creations on display at the show. It was nice to see the small island village partake in a community developing activity.

All of this made me really think hard about community, and what it means for the participants, or inhabitants of Naifaru. A sense of togetherness lies in the soul of every individual. This comes from our care and dependency on our fellow beings. From our childhood days to our adulthood, we care for our family members, our relatives, our neighbors and friends. This leads to a need of togetherness among people, which helps in creating a community. We tend to enjoy any festival or social ritual together. This is a kind of community feeling. Without community people will be alone. Even though this is an island, surrounded by water and miles from the nearest inhabited island, these people are not alone.

I thought originally that the Fashion Show was ridiculous and would not serve a purpose, except angering the conservative island community. I was wrong. And I am delighted to say that I am beginning to understand the importance of  strong community bonds, even on this sun-scorched island in the middle of nowhere.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fifty Shades of Religious

There are many things that can be said about the Maldives. The country being a land of opportunity and endless religious freedom is not one of them. To be Maldivian means to practice Islam. It is against the law to practice any other religions, and the law is so strict that even tourists cannot bring religious goods in the country.

Maybe because I am not religious, I really did not dwell too much about this law. (When I say I am not religious, what I mean is that I do not practice one religion in it’s entirely. I am spiritual. I have my own beliefs, but they are personal, private to me.) I did not really think about this law so much before coming here. Of course, I was informed by the Volunteer Maldives organization to not bring any religious items with me. The customs card also asked if I carried with me any suspicious religious items. “Suspicious?” I wondered, are gold cross earrings I received on my Communion considered suspicious? My Shinto good luck charms I carry with me to school, are they considered suspicious? Luckily, I did not bring these items, or they would have been confiscated and I would have ended up in the questioning chamber.

The Maldivian customs, did, however, open up my luggage and take a look at all the books. Mind you, in true JujuB fashion, I brought with me about 8 books, since reading tends to be the only thing besides running and movies that keeps me entertained. The customs officer looked at each book carefully. Most of the books, Young Adult novels, with pretty pictures on the front, were quickly thrown in my bag. I guess they were not suspicious enough. But the officer took an extra moment to look at the “Fifty Shades of Grey” books I brought with me. If you have not heard about these books, than you are either male or living under a rock. They are currently all the rage in the United States. One critic calls them, “Mommy Porn,” while others call them, “straight sex in a book.” Noticing that the officer as taking extra time to examine these books, I blushed fifty shades of red. 

Did the officer know what these books were? Unquestionably, he would haul my butt back on to the tarmac and put me on the first plane back to the United States of Heathens if he had any idea. Surely, if he knew, he would NEVER let me take these porn novels into a conservative Muslim country. Fortunately, as I have come to know, the Maldives is about a year behind the times of the rest of the world (Angry Birds and Justin Beiber are the top pop culture items as of 2012.) I realized that the officer was looking for Bible passages hidden under the cover. The irony was not lost on me that the Officer thought he might find the Bible in the Fifty Shades Book coverings. Now, that my friends, would be sacrilegious. 

Customs is pretty strict about the religious belongings, and I am certainly not the only ones they have targeted. The local Indian teachers have informed me that their Hindu idols of Krishna, Vishnu, and Shiva were rapidly stripped them upon arrival in male. They seemed rather devastated when they were telling me about it. 

This got me to thinking about religion and religious freedom. Going to Clemson University, in the heart of the Bible Belt, I have always felt that my religious beliefs have been oppressed to some extent. Perhaps, oppressed is not the right word. But I have long felt that I can not talk about anything but Jesus Christ and the South's strict versions of Christianity.

My favorite coffee shop in Clemson, is run by some pretty hardcore Christians. I can remember one occasions when the shop owner asked me about my religious beliefs, and I said, " I am not religious, but I am spiritual."The look I received was not one that I admit to welcoming. It was not a look of disgust or distaste, but it was a look of awe and lack of understanding. I was exceptionally pissed off at that coffee shop when they asked me this question. 


The underlying fact is that they even asked me this question. They acknowledged, perhaps unknowingly, the differences in religion. And even though, they were not content with my answer, they did not kick me out of their coffee shop, refuse to serve me, or treat me any differently. I am not entirely sure the same can be said for the Maldives. No one has asked me what religion I practice, but I am sure they must know I am not Muslim. This is because I am usually lounged out on the couch, snoring blissfully in my bed, or half way through lunch during the 5 times-a-day prayers. I suspect if I went around touting my pride in Christianity or any other religion that is not Islam, I would get into some sort of trouble.

Hopefully, I won't have to find out.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Discourses with Deen

 Perhaps the greatest reward I have received in my experience in Maldives is my new found friendship, with an exceptionally giving, intelligent, Sri Lankan, named Malhardeen Muhammed. Better known in my past musings, as Deen.

Since I know he will creep on this blog within 10 minutes of me posting this, I will try not overwhelm with the compliments. But Deen happens to be one of those people that at a young age, has managed to impress a lot of people. For my first week here, when he told me about how he started his own foundation to help struggling Sri Lankan children, I was impressed. Then he bragged about his Software Engineering degree. He then showed me his nerdy computer skills, and I was convinced.

One day, out of the blue, he asked me how old I thought he was. Uh… 23? He started laughing. I thought I was giving him a compliment. He looks a lot older than 23, with his scraggly beard and 'wise' eyes, and he has plenty of qualifications that put him in his late 20’s. But then he told me he was younger than me.

What the heck? Sure enough, Deen is only 19. I felt pretty unaccomplished at that point.

My discourses with Deen are interesting, to say the least. I never really thought much about Sri Lanka. In fact, besides basic awareness of its existence, I knew nothing else about until I had taught a small lesson on the country 2 months ago during student teaching. That basic knowledge did not really impress Deen, but I assured him that fact that I knew Sri Lanka was suffering from a Civil War between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, was immensely more information than most Americans.

Deen has been in Naifaru for 2 months, receiving free meals and accommodation for his work with Naifaru Juvenile as the volunteer coordinator. The thought of staying on this island for more than a month gives me Island Fever (the equivalent is Cabin Fever, only worse.) What is even worse is that he has had to suffer about 30 days all alone, with no other volunteers. I suspect that is why he stalked me so extensively. I am remarkably bored after 12 days… and I have been fortunate enough to have Sri Lanka’s golden boy with me. 

Every night at 4:30, we meet and do several laps around the island. Mind you, it takes maybe 20 minutes to walk around the whole island. But Deen and I never tire in our conversations. We talk about everything: life, love, politics, and all the little things in between. It often amazes me how we continue to have things to say.

I fear my candid honesty with the older local volunteers. I try hard to hard my tongue about several things because I am female and also my opinion does not matter as it has been made clear. But with Deen, I say anything and everything. We talk about our mutual dislike of certain culutural aspects of the Maldives. I ask Deen a lot of questions about Islam as well. Deen is one of those people, my Clemson friend would refer to as a “Burger King” Muslim. (“Burger King” is all about “have it your way.”) He believes in some things, but he certainly disagrees with a lot of it. On Friday’s he goes to weekly prayer, but he agrees with me when I admonish the ban on alcohol and the headscarves. We talk freely about these sort of things, and I do not fear repercussions to the things I say.

I have talked a lot in the past blog postings about strangers in a strange land. Perhaps because we are simply this 'strangers in a strange land' concept, all the while fighting against a culture we both dislike well, Deen and I have become fast friends.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cultural Collisions Part I.

I have been toying around for a few days at how to write this post. It does not come easy to me, someone that preaches tolerance and the constant “what’s right in my culture…” mantra that I use when discussing culture collisions. But it is important that I say it somewhere, openly and truthfully.

Is it justifiable to admonish another person's culture? Is it okay to admonish another person's culture if it works for them? It is okay to pass judgement on another country that is not your own? these are the questions I am currently grappling with.

It has been 2 weeks in the Maldives and I have decided that I do not like it here. I have given it many chances, and this is not a rash post without thorough thought put in to it.

There I said it.

I feel like I need to justify this post by addressing what’s on everyone’s mind: “You’re so American! Just because they do not have air conditioner and healthy food, does not mean you should dislike the country.”

This has nothing to do with air conditioner, the fact that I can not eat anything here but bread and tuna from a can, the fact that my room smells like sulfur, in fact I SMELL like sulfur from the horrible water conditions, the overwhelming heat that has fried my skin, etc. Because the fact is that I can deal with all these conditions. I have dealt with worse, and come out a better person. I expected to do the same after leaving the Maldives. Now I am not so sure.

The reason I dislike it here so much, simply put, is the culture.

In the Maldives, people do not seem to think they need to work. Deen says that people here are not, “goal-oriented. They do only what they have to, and nothing more.” Yes, they go out on their fishing trips and make enough money to support their families for a few weeks. But as for the rest of the time, they sit in their jolla chairs in the front of their houses and sit and stare for hours upon hours. They do nothing. They accomplish nothing. They do not care about anything. The do not know or care about life outside of Naifaru. They eye with me suspicious, as if my presence has brought some sort of progressive movement that they do not want to tolerate.

Still… I can deal with this. What’s right in this culture in not always right in others, right? Maybe this relaxation drives the laid-back attitude of the Maldivian culture. It seems to work for them. Okay. No problem.

The Maldivians seem to think that planet Earth is meant to be planet garbage. They live in the sweltering heat on heaps of garbage, that they refuse to dispose of or simply take to the make-shift dump at the other side of the island. I understand the fact that the do not have an adequate garbage disposal system, but the living conditions are atrocious. And don’t get me started on the ocean. I have been here for 10 days and I already enough stories to horrify and disgust about what goes into the ocean.

Even still…. I easily overcome this. I just think that these people are underprivileged and have not had the same education and experience that I have had. (Simply put, these people have not had watch Wall-E. Haha…) The people of Naifaru can not say their plans for tomorrow, let alone think 5 years, 10 years, 30 years, or 100 years down the road, when the world will be so polluted that living conditions will be impossible. They do not think about the kind of world their children will be living in. That's fine. That works for them. We need to educate them more.

I am woman. I am not a feminist, but I am proud to say I am a trilingual, wanderlust-infected, marathon-runner, Honors students, qualified teacher, drivers license-holder, gum-chewing, shorts-wearing, high-achieving, book-reading, prize-winning baker, volunteer, and decent person. Why do I tell you this? Because it matters. Maybe not to you. But it matters to me. It’s my identity and I need to reaffirm it somewhere because everywhere I go in the Maldives, I feel like none of this matters. When I walk around the island at night with Deen, people stop to ask Deen to go on fishing trips with them. They do not even say hello to me, unless they are my students. When I go to the café by myself with a book in hand, the men make offhand snide remarks about me sitting and eating while reading a book. On the night fishing trip, I described in an earlier post, I was completely ignored by all the men except Muhammad and Deen. It bothered me more than I care to admit.

And yet, even still, I can deal with this. Women are seen as second-class citizens in most Muslim countries, though certainly not all. I am in a Muslim country where this happens to be the case, and I can handle this with no problem. Sure, it bothers me, but I am getting over that. I imagine Muslim women are uncomfortable in the United States. Okay, this works for them. I can deal with this.

Then there is the fact that I am here in Naifaru and the Maldives to volunteer and help make this place a little bit better than how I found it. I feel as though my presence has been helpful to the kids. But otherwise, not so much. We did a beach cleanup yesterday, Deen and I. We slaved under the hot sun, picking up loads and loads of plastic water bottles, wrappers and old clothes from the beach. I was content with out work, and when we returned to the NGO, we were told that what we did was foolish. No one cares about the beach. No one cares about the volunteers who come here to give a helping hand. We are eyed with suspicion. Why would people From Sri Lanka and the United States come to the Maldives to partake in cleaning the country, when the citizens don't even clean it? Valid point, I think. Again, if this works for the Maldivians, it works for me. All of these things I have just described, I can tolerate.

But I have met the end of my patience.

It’s the entitlement, the belief that the rest of the world owes these people something. The islands are sinking into the sea, so the Maldivians seem to expect the rest of the world to take care of them, shower them with money and support. These NGO's that have sprung up all around the Maldives EXPECT the UN, the World Bank, the Canadian embassy, the American embassy, the EU, etc. to give them money to support their causes. Yes, these causes are helpful sometimes, and play an important role in the maintenance of island life in some areas. But this is something these countries have come to EXPECT. From this expectation springs this lack of gratitude. 

It’s all of this combined with everything else that makes me dislike this place so much.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Resurrecting an Old Post

When You See the Southern Cross for the First Time

"...When you see the Southern Cross
For the first time
You understand now
Why you came this way
'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from
Is so small.
But it's as big as the promise
The promise of a comin' day...."

I think these lyrics from the hit song by Crosby, Stills and Nash sum up most people’s feelings about seeing the constellation of the Southern Cross for the very first time. They sum up mine, at the very least. Of course, my first second evening in the Maldives, sitting on the swings by the water's edge with Deen, was not my first time seeing the Southern Cross. The first time I saw it, I was 14, it in the Outback of Australia. I did not know what I was looking at, when they told us the story of the Southern Cross. I had not lived enough yet to understand how powerful the constellation could truly be.
Although it is the tiniest of the 88 official constellations, its reputation is larger than most. If you do not believe me, just take a look at the Its the flags of New Zealand and Australia. They carry the British Union Jack adjacent to the Southern Cross constellation, which has become a symbol for the Southern Hemisphere.
The Southern Cross, or Crux, as it is now officially named, used to be visible from much of Europe, seen by the ancient Greek civilization around 1000 BC. Throughout the centuries, however, the slow wobble of the Earth on its axis (called precession) carried the stars of Crux south and out of view of Europe. Thus, it gradually was forgotten by the keepers of the stories of the constellations. European sailors rediscovered these stars during the 16th and 17th centuries as they began exploring the southern seas. Many of these European explorers were of the Christian faith and were awestruck by the resemblance of these stars to a tiny crucifix in the heavens.
Eventually, precession will carry Crux back into the view of mid-northern latitudes once again, but that will be centuries in the future. Until then, traveling to the tropics is the only way to view the Southern Cross for yourself.
To me, the Southern Cross has a very powerful effect. more so, than I care to admit.  It reminds me and humbles me again at how small I really am in this great big universe. I tend to get oddly emotional at these kind of things, and I can not really explain why.
At home, I like to look up at the big Dipper or the North Star and ask myself, how many people are looking up at these stars right now? How many people on Earth, sharing nothing more than the same planet and the human species, gaze up  at the sky every night? I feel that way about the Southern Cross. So many people know the constellation and use it as a navigation source. I know that I am not alone when I look up at the sky, and the thought makes me feel so small.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

To Want and To Need

“Well, folks, this flight from Doha to Male is making good time and progressing along the course. To all the Maldivians on board, I need to apologize but we are actually going to land in Male about 20 minutes early *chuckles* Hope you’ve had a wonderful flight!”

I had no idea what the crazy Asian pilot was talking about. I just smiled and looked confused at my neighboring passengers, a German couple that stared back at me with the typical iron glare, a characteristic of most German tourists. I gave up the mystery in that moment. Very few passengers appeared to be Maldivian, so I surmised that no one would be able to answer my curiosity.

After nearly a week in the Maldives, my curiosity is satiated.

Today, or any day for that matter, I arrived at the Naifaru Juvenile office 5 minutes before requested. Prompt to the point of being too early combined with my utter detestation of people who are late, is the philosophy that drives me. I am never late. I will never be late. If I am late, I am either dead or someone else is dead. 

This is another reason that things in the Maldives have been exceptionally difficult for me.

Promptness is not part of the Maldivian culture. I have not quite figured out if being late is part of the culture or if being on time is not. Either way, rather than my typical 5 minutes early, I am often left 15, 20, 30, or even an hour early. It drives me absolutely mad. When finally, the meeting begins, the Maldivians brush my accusations of lateness off.

On my second day in Naifaru, I gathered up $40 to give to Rikie to convert to Maldivian Rufiya. I would have converted more, but Deen warned me that any extra Rufiya I had after one month would go to waste because of the difficulties in exchanging the ‘useless’ money.  Rikie promised he would convert the money as soon as possible.  (As soon as possible, I have come to learn, is a relative expression.) I also asked for a hose for my washing machine, and some water for my room, which I maintained was an absolute necessity.

3 days passed, including 3 days of dire need for water, medicine, and chocolate. I did not want to voice my concern and ask for the money. I do not want to be annoying or seemingly needy. I was certain Rikie would convert the money. He made it clear that he had not forgotten, and he kept saying, “don’t worry. It’s coming!” I went to bed thirsty, and during the day, I stole water and Coke from Deen to satisfy my need for liquid. I thought at first, I would be okay, and with the constant reassurance that it was coming, I was confident that I would be okay.

Finally, I had had enough. I complained to Deen and finally to the older local volunteers. I spoke of my dehydration, and my need for water. I decided I did not care about being polite anymore and simply waiting for the water, hose, and converted money. It became less about the things I wanted and more about the things I needed. I needed water, or my symptoms of dehydration would get worse and worse. The rash on my body would continue to spread, and the sand paper tongue sensation in my paper would remain. I needed the hose for the washer. I no longer had any clean clothes and there was no other way I could wear any of the dirty clothes. I needed money desperately, not to just buy chocolate like was my original intention, but to buy medicine. I did not pack enough.

As I complaned to Deen, trying to hard not to let the tears that pinched at my eyelids flow, I got to thinking about the differences between wants and needs. Maybe the reason that Maldivians are late or slow with everything is because of this want and need category. Sure, it would be wonderful to have hose for the washer right now, but there are other thngs that are absolutely necessary first. Yes, it would be pleasant to have some extra money to buy a few treats for the walk home, but there are other things that need to be bought first.

I do not claim to be someone aimed at figuring out another person’s culture, but I think I might be on to something concerning Maldivian culture. I have spent so much time in misery over the need for a washer hose, that I have not taken time to really assess whether it is a NEED. I have spent so much consideration pondering whether the Maldivian people are just lazy people with no aspirations, that I have not taken the time to consider that maybe they are really just working for instant gratification, rather than goal-orientation. Obviously, I need some more time to sit and ponder about this, but I think I might be on the right track to understanding an entire culture.

As for me? Today, Rikie brought me my Rufiya, several water bottles, and the washer hose. I am doing the wash as we speak, drinking water like there is no tomorrow, and scheming a trip to the local store to buy a big piece of chocolate (oh and my medicine, of course.) I think I deserve as much.

Monday, May 21, 2012

On a Sun-Scorched Island

I am not certain that I can write an entry about the Naifaru and the Maldives, in general, without sounding pessimistic, condescending of certain lifestyles, and simply miserable of the things I have been experiencing. 

I know my father will read everything I write and then taunt me when I return. (Dad, I love you to death, but can you at least try to understand that America is not better or worse, just different?)  Many people from home will say things, like, “Aren’t you glad to be home?” “That place sounds horrible!” “I do not know why you stayed so long with those savages.” I loathe when people put me in these tight spots with questions aimed at making me answer one way. I am tired of being surrounded by one-minded people who think America is God’s gift to the earth, and solely because I do not have air condition, this must be a complete shit hole.

It’s not.

And from what I have been saying over and over through all my travels, over the lush green mountains and vibrant rice paddies surrounding Kochi, through the lazy days in the Burgundy vineyards, across the street from Big Ben in a Tube station, chasing wombats on the Outback, and having in depth political discussions in Bielefeld, “what’s right in my country, is not always right in other countries.”

I hope you will remember that as you read my initial description of life in Naifaru.

I want to go ahead and write down all of my initial feelings about this place. I can already feel myself changing, growing further and further attached to this strange place. Certainly in a different way than I have ever grown attached to a country before. But before I become enamored, head over heels in love with Naifaru and the Maldives, I must go ahead and be truthful about my first few perceptions.

Everywhere I look, I see poverty. But it is a different kind of poverty than I have ever witnessed. I see homes built with crumbling cement, deteriorating roofs, crusty chipped paint. The roads, well, if you can call them that, are made of a combination of sand, dust, and garbage. It makes me for rather complicated stroll around the island, and I always seem to be tripping over used water bottles.

The stores are locally owned, disintegrating shop fronts, where people sit behind a counter and wait for the customer that just probably will not come. There are local resort islands that offer passage to Naifaru to spend the afternoon, but I suspect the resorts warn people not to make the journey. There are a few Russian doctors, Sri Lankans, Bengladesians, and Indians, but otherwise diversity is a rarity.  I try hard to think of a way to describe what I see everyday in Naifaru to people in America, so that they can understand and conceptualize it. It is not possible.

One should not drink the water, and it is not hard to understand why. The water smells profusely of sulfur, and tastes like nothing I have ever tasted before. It has been sitting in huge black vats since the last rainy season. There is no access to clean water, other than what has fallen already. The only water we can get in salt water from the ocean, and people can not drink that. Usually, people have to import water bottles from Male, but the high amount of plastic water bottles has made way for huge environmental problems, littering, and pollution concerns.

And, yet, people are happy. They only work when they want to, which is not very often. They do not pay taxes. When they want to buy food or clothes, they go out on fishing boats, catch a few fish and cash in. In the evenings, when the sun goes down and it becomes “cool,” everyone engages in their favorite activity: sitting in their lawn chairs on the front steps. (I would normally refer to this as ‘people-watching’ but I do not want to get people confused with the French ‘people-watching’ and the actual ‘people-watching.’) Children run around the streets blissfully, seemingly unaware of the blistering heat scorching the land.

I have spent the better part of this past week trying to think up a word to describe the Maldivian people on Naifaru. Impoverished? No, they aren't impoverished. Poverty implies they are poor all-around, which is not true, because they are not poor in the happiness department. Lazy? Too strong of a word. When they want money, they go work. It just seems like they do not want or need money very often. The best descriptor of these Maldivian people is underprivileged. This may sound arrogant, but these people have never had the privilege and opportunity that I have had.

I have a very hard time imagining how one can truly be happy in a place like this.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Night Fishing

Passed out in a heatstroke coma, I almost missed the opportunity to partake in one of the most interesting and fun activities of typical Maldivian. Night fishing.

Deen came to pick me up at my accommodation, where he nearly had to force me to get out of bed. He dragged me to the small harbor, where Muhammad waited for us next to an incredibly sketchy looking boat. It barely rose 2 inches above the waterline because of all the people crowded onto it and weighing it down. No, it was not just a few people; it was tons of men piled seemingly on top of each other rushing around and tossing the boat up and down. There was also not a single female. Just me, standing on the side of the boat with my mouth wide open in horror at what Deen and Muhammad wanted me to do.

It was hot as hell.

There was absolutely no way anyone was going to get me on that catastrophe-waiting-to-happen. 

I used every excuse in the book: heat stroke, dehydration, and severe seasickness. (Okay, to be fair, none of these was an excuse.. it was all true) But nevertheless, no one listened to me, as I got dragged on to the boat. I was sure this was the end for me, as the boat chugged along out of the little port, water washing up on to the deck as we went along.

We sailed for about 25 minutes until we reached the center of the atoll. The depth, Muhammed claimed, was about 50 meters deep. He handed Deen and I these strange contraptions that looking like rolls with fishing string wrapped around it. I chuckled and jokingly asked of we would be fishing with these strange thing. Joke was on me, we sure would! This version of sport fishing is made possible because the fishermen place a giant bright light on the side of the boat. The fish are attracted to the light and along the way, they see the shiny fish hook. And boom. Dinner. (Normally, that would be a figure of speech, but in reality, it’s literal. The fish we catch, we would eat. Right on the boat.)

I released my fishing line off the side of the boat and waited. And waited. I have been fishing before, so I expected the long wait with little reward that often entails Atlantic coast fishing. SO, I was really surprised when 5 minutes into the fishing, Muhammed apologized to me about the lack of fish. Almost as soon as he said it, Deen yelled excitedly that he got a bite. He netted 2 fish at one time, and began arrogantly talking about what a good fisherman he was.

Challenge accepted.

As the sun finally dipped below the horizon, and night overtook the atoll, the fishing really began! I had almost no luck with  the string. But Muhammed managed to wrestle a fishing rod out of someone’s grasp and give it to me. I can not accurately say why my luck changed, only that it did. I was suddenly reeling the fish in one after the other. It was the first time in my life that I caught fish by myself.

However, true to my self, I refused to touch the fish. When I reeled in a fish, I chucked the rod at Muhammed or Deen and then hurled myself below deck so I would not have to rip the poor thing off the hook. I pride myself in being tough and cool, but I'll be honest, I refuse to do the dirty work of fish catching, well, unless you count the eating part of the process as the dirty work.

Mid way through our fishing session, Muhammed handed Deen and I plate with 2 of our fish. They had skinned (scaled?) the fish right on spot, threw them in a griller, smothered them in curry, and began eating them. I love fish, and I was pleasantly happy when I tasted the fish. Absolutely delicious! I could not stop eating the fish, even if I was not particularly hungry and more interested in getting back to fishing.  I probably should have stopped them, but I kept on going. 

Then suddenly... I began dry heaving. I have no taste buds due to an earlier incident involving an overdose of curry and my own stupidity, so I was not able to taste my impending doom. The burning bubbling writhing pain of my esophagus as the spices went down to my stomach. 

"Water? WATER!" It hit so fast that I had hardly any time o make sense of the situation. I had no taste buds. I had just ate an exorbitant amount of spicy food without realizing it. Then it hit me like a speed boat between Male and Naifaru. If I had not had the good sense to packa  water in my back before hand, I would have shoved my head off the side of the boat and into the dark atoll depths to drink the water. Muhammed could see my struggles with the spice, and he hurriedly got my water bottle, tossed it to me, and then watched me drink the water like it was my job. The fish was absolutely delicious, and fresh as ever. But when Deen and Muhammed asked me to eat some more, I answered with a big fat NO.

After my second butt-kicking by Maldivian food, I headed back to the side of the boat for some rod fishing. I got into a nice rhythm, releasing the line and then staring up at the great stars in the sky while I waited to hook some dinner. I reeled in 3 fish, and a baby shark, which someone else had to throw back (Hey, if I don't touch fish. You can can bet your butt I'm not going to touch a shark.) It was a beautiful crisp evening on the water, as we let the water bounce us up and down. The fishing was great and the experience was enjoyable. I was actually disappointed when they announced we would be headed back.

Friday, May 18, 2012

How to Survive

This is why I know I am going to survive my experience in Naifaru:

Locals of naifaru.
Even though I came to the Maldives with the Volunteer Maldives Company, they sort of handed me over to Atoll Volunteers (not really sure if this was the plan, but this is how it sort of happened.) I am currently working with Naifaru Juvenile, an NGO with the main objective of helping kids. The fact of the matter is that there is nothing to do on the islands, absolutely nothing. There are very few recreation programs, educational enrichment experiences, and future opportunities. For the most part, after school, students go home, eat dinner, and have nothing else to keep them busy. There are significantly high levels of poverty, teen pregnancies, and an even greater concern of increasing drug and alcohol abuse.

Naifaru Juvenile works with local volunteers to get funding from the government, other governments It was also awarded the best Volunteer organization in the year 2008 by Government of Maldives.

(such as the Canadian government, which funded my accommodation as well as the Naifaru Juvenile building,) the UN, and other NGO grant-sources. They have received grants for conservation projects, such as the recycling bins at the local schools from the World Bank, as well as many others. And because the organization was founded by locals, they have exceptionally good relations with local schools, hospitals, and other important institutions.
Computer class for kids

Muhammed and the other volunteers of the NGO, are some of the warmest and most welcoming people I have ever met. They are truly desperate for volunteers from abroad. Not because they think you are going to come and spend tons of money like tourist. In fact, they are not interested in people with just tourist visas (people that can only stay for 30 days or less.) They are not interested in people who come to Maldives to lay around in the sun ad get a cheap vacation. They want actual volunteers, people who come to work and do good things for the community. You also pay one price to volunteer, which is also an exceptionally low price compared to any other volunteer organization I have ever seen, and this pays for food and accommodation. Granted, the accommodation is limited, but the food is fantastic.

I start working tomorrow, the 16th, in the 2nd grade classroom at the school. I will only be observing, and then next week I might be able to take over some of the classes. Deen and I went by the school
Working with kids!
today, and I visited some of the classrooms. I cannot tell you how excited I am to start working with the kids. They are utterly adorable. Unfortunately, next week begins summer vacation for them, so I will only be able to teach for a week. Afterwards, I will either be working at the local preschools or helping with some of the other projects. There are several projects that I would love to help with. They are going to start collecting Turtle eggs from one of the local uninhabited islands to release into the wild, and they also have just got a grant for funding information on women’s reproductive rights.

Everything I just wrote about: teaching, conservation, women’s rights, makes me excited. Even though life here is difficult, I feel like I am doing so much good already, even after 2 days in Naifaru!

The Great Blue Sea

Jersey girl on the Atlantic Ocean... when beaches were
fun and didn't feel, well, restrictive.
Growing up on the Atlantic coast of New Jersey, I have always looked out on the ocean and seen it as endless possibility. I remember in my younger days pointing out to the horizon, and saying, “That’s France! That’s where Grandma is from!” I never quite understood that the horizon was not the beginning of another country. I used to wonder if I really became a better swimmer, perhaps I could swim to France.

No matter how old I get, experiences I have had, occasions to stand beside the great body of water, I have always seen it as endless possibility, once I can get over my own minuscule size compared to it. I remember in 2002, when I went on my first ‘big’ trip with to California, I placed my feet in the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Most people probably do not mark that this as something momentous, or something celebratory, but at 12 years old, I was proud that I had ‘conquered 2 whole oceans!’

Oh, hey, let me complain about how restrictive the ocean
makes me feel while showing you a phenomenal
epic photo of the water!
I love the ocean. I love the smell of the salty water wafting through the air, and the smell of salt that lingers on one’s clothes hours after walking along the shoreline. The feel of my skin after swimming, almost endlessly, in the shallows or the sandbanks. The sounds of the waves crashing to shore, that help me to clear my mind and give me some sort of peace in my constant thought-process. But for me, it has always been about the endless possibility and that feeling of being just one tiny molecule on this great big Earth.

Things are different on Naifaru. From anywhere I stand, I can see the ocean 360 degrees around me. Over the ramshackle hovels that bead the streets, the ocean is calling. But the call is not one of possibility, it is one of restriction.

There are many people that I have crossed paths with on Naifaru that have never left this island. Mind you, this tiny island is barely 2 square miles. It takes me 10 minutes to walk across the whole island, and with a grand total of 5,000 people, everyone knows one another and their business. These same people stare at me, as if I am some sort of walking catastrophe. The reasons are numerous, my pale complexion and horrific sunburns have made me look like a Red Woman at a circus freak show. But once they have taken the time to get to know me, to hear about how my life is defined in 3 languages and 3 countries, they think I am insane. Most of them have never taken the 2-hour speedboat ride to the Maldivian capital of Male, let alone gotten on a plane to anywhere outside the country.

Obviously, there are some people that have left Naifaru, gotten off this forsaken island and headed to
*cue music* "sending out an SOS..."
the hills. The Brain Drain is defined as all the intellectuals fleeing one country to move to another country. The simple fact that the Maldives is sinking into the rising waters of the Indian Ocean, and that Maldivians are entitled to apply and receive citizenship in ANY country around the world, is proof enough of the Brain Drain.

But for those that have no other means to leave Naifaru, or the Maldives, they are surrounded by the beautiful crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean. And, gosh, is it beautiful. The reefs that surround the island are dazzling, and full of fish. The conservation projects by Naifaru Juvenile, have been successful in fixing the reefs that were destroyed in the coral bleaching. Perhaps a kilometer off shore are 2 small deserted islands; one with a reef that is rumored to be the best reef in the whole atoll and another with luscious beaches where sea turtles nest their eggs each year.

Of course, access to these reefs and island requires a respectable ability to swim. But one cannot take this ability for granted, as most Maldivians do not know how to swim. No matter how many times I walk out to the small sandy beach on the left side of the island, I never see any locals. I am not really certain why more people do not swim. I think, perhaps, it might have to do with conservative Islamic
culture, but I am not entirely certain about that.

This evening, Deen and I went for a stroll around the Naifarian island. Just as the sun was began it's slow descent below the horizon, I sat down on the beach to enjoy the wind off the ocean and the beautiful scenery. The lighting from the blue ocean and clear sand, reflecting the dimming sun light gave me a nervous chill. With the cloud covering and the approaching night sky, I no longer saw the ocean and boundless opportunity. I no longer felt small beside the great blue sea. I saw it through the eyes of the Maldivians on Naifaru. I saw it as a box, a restrictive wall that would not ame to leave. Very little opportunity to escape. 

I have never in my life felt restricted as I did this evening on the beach. I have always felt that opportunity is prevalent if I could just reach out and grab it. The people of Naifaru do not have this luxury, and it is frightening for me to wrap my head around.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Greetings from Naifaru!

Reclaimed land on Naifaru
I feel as though I have truly entered a different world. I know that I say that often, what with all my travels. But this it is for real. Before I begin to talk about all the things I have done today, let me explain a little bit about my past. My travels around the world have taken me to the following countries: Canada, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Japan, Netherlands, Austria, etc. You see where I am going with this one? Not one of those nations is listed as a UN lit of “developing” country, otherwise known as the
The nature scenes are epic, though.
“third-world.” (Alright, Politically Correct Police, you can come for me now!)

I type this sitting on a dusty dirt floor, sweat-beads dripping from my far head (even typing is a physical activity,) outside the window are several ramshackle hovels that people use as their primary homes. I am in this mysterious “third-world.”

I am lucky that I have experience with culture shock. I am lucky
that at the ripe-old age of 15, I was able to overcome that gut-wrenching feeling of regret. Regret that I got on a plane to come to a place I knew nothing about. Regret that I gave up time of my life to do something completely different. Because if I had not already learned how strong of an individual I really am, I would be hard-pressed to think I could survive one month in Naifaru.

I have been in Naifaru for one day so far. I took the speedboat from Male to Naifaru, part of the Liviyani Atoll in the northern island group. It is the third largest city in the Maldives, with approximately 5,000 people, although I will admit that I cannot really imagine where all these people are hiding. The island is maybe one mile by 2 miles long. The speedboat was really enjoyable, but I got the short end of the stick and ended up sitting in a partially shady spot. (Needless to say one half of my body is fried to a sun burnt crisp, while the other half is still pale. It makes for a very uncomfortable feeling.)
The office of the NGO I am working with

Muhammed, the volunteer coordinator, met me at the boat dock. He was apologetic because he could not meet with me initially, as he had to give representatives of the UN a tour of the island. He asked one of his assistants, Riki, to take me to lunch and then show me my accommodations. (I would later learn that he was petitioning for grant money to fund a woman’s reproductive rights in Naifaru. He got the grant! Hopefully, I will be able to help get this new program started.)

Here is how my first afternoon went: I ordered Rice and Curry at a local restaurant. I love Rice and Curry, at least I loved the Japanese version of Rice and Curry. The Maldivian Rice and Curry is like eating everything spicy: Jalapenos, Kimchi, etc, all compressed in a little bowl of innocent looking vegetables. After just one bite, I began writing my living will in my head, as my esophagus began and writhing in pain. Since I am new the Maldivian culture, I did not want to appear rude and not eat the bowl of Curry. So I kept on
eating, feeling closer and closer to death with each bite. After three full water bottles, which immediately came out of me in sweat, Riki noticed that I was on the verge of death. He called the waiter over to take the bowl of instant death away from me. I no longer have taste buds, my stuffy nose is completely clear, and 24 hours later I can still taste the spice on my tongue.

After lunch, I headed to my accommodation; a cute little one bedroom apartment above the post office. With no air condition. Not that I’m complaining. But I must admit, the combination of deadly curry and half-body third degree sunburn was begging for a chance to cool down somewhere. With temperatures of 102, I began to wonder how exactly I would survive in the mysterious island.

Luckily, Riki perceptively noticed my failing health and suggested we go over to the center, where they have air-conditioning and WIFI. I thought this to be an excellent plan, as air-conditioning and WIFI are like the crack to addict.  Although, I honestly was not sure if I was going to make it to the center alive. I got my laptop, and began the strenuous 5-minute walk. Just picture this: someone unable to talk because of lack of feeling in his or her mouth, hobbling to one side like a cripple, and exhausted beyond the ability to function like a normal person. That was me, as we made the sun-baked walk over to the center.

Somehow I made it.

But of course… because I clearly have more luck than I need…  the air-conditioned room was closed for a meeting, so I had to sit in the front room, swimming in my own sweat for about 2 hours. Well, at least I got to meet all the Maldivian volunteers.

On the bright side, after about 30 minutes, my body returned to normal temperature. I also met Deen, an IT volunteer from Sri Lanka, who introduced himself to me and then began listing statistic after statistic about myself. He asked me about Japan, France, my twitter, and my blog. Normally, I would have been thoroughly creeped out, but I did not have the energy to care. I called Deen a stalker, and then let him rattle off weird stats and facts about my life, all the while wondering just how much information I have put on the Internet about myself. Apparently, way too much.

I must admit, I never thought I would one day meet my match in
My new friend Deen.
Internet stalking. I thought I had cornered that market. But I think I have met someone creepier than myself. Luckily, Deen was never able to find my Facebook account, which led to some serious taunting from me about his inability to truly and efficiently creep on the Internet. He and I chatted for some time, exchanging travel and volunteer stories. I laughed, he laughed. It was the first time all day that I did not feel overwhelmed and exhausted.

To quote good old Mr. Bogart, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

First Day in the Maldives

I wish I could say that my first day in the Maldives was an eventful fun-filled day. And it was, if you consider sleeping 7 hours eventful.

When my plane arrived at Male International airport, I looked and felt like the walking dead. I have an inability to sleep on airplanes, which is really unfortunate because I seem to travel only on long flights, which require some sleeping. Thus, the 12 hour flight to Doha was spent nose-deep in a book. The 8 hour layover in Doha was spent nose-deep in the sequel. And to give my brain a rest, the 4-hour flight to Male was spent watching movies.

On a side note, the plane ride to Male was the epitome of the word obnoxious. I was the only person on that flight not on my damn honeymoon or on an anniversary or some crap like that. Couples making out in an airplane is NOT cute.

When I arrived at Male, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of grandeur the airport offered. Firstly, the tarmac was built on a remote island right across the water from Male. It is merely a one-road landing strip right on the water. When you are taxied to the airport, you get out, get your passport stamped and walk straight through. Sure, there is a customs department, but they were on lunch break when I went through. On the outside of the airport, there are several small booths that advertise the seaplane route to the resort islands. There are also boat routes to Male, which Juan and I got aboard.

My immediate reaction of the Maldives was really great, regardless of the fact that I was dead tired. One thing I did notice that I did not like was the amount of trash floating in crystal blue waters. I would later learn the reason for this.

Everyone who knows me well enough knows that I am a nervous driver. The invisible break and myself are well acquainted. Driving through the streets of Male was by far the scariest thing I have ever done in my whole life. There are thousands of bikes, and they have the right away. But the problem is that they just drive right out in the middle of the street without thinking or looking. The taxi was at a constant emergency stop, and it seemed that he spent most of the drive with his hand on the horn. Juan would later tell me that he thought I has going to have a heart attack, and the taxi driver asked him to translate, “please stop trying to break with no break!”

Alive, we arrived at the hotel... well, if you could call it that. I must admit, it definitely was NOT what I was expecting when I was promised a room. But 5 minutes after I checked in, I was passed out on my bed asleep... and slept... and slept... and slept....