Friday, March 6, 2015

Uligamu, Republic of Maldives

Entrance to the Small Boat Harbor, Uligamu
We had read other boat’s blog posts about checking into the Maldives and some had cautioned about being asked for ‘compliments’ aka bribes, gratuities, etc.  It was somewhat reassuring that when we made radio contact with Customs in Uligamu, in the far northern end of the Maldive archipelago, that they asked us when we would like them to come out to our boat for the check-in formalities. “Uh, 10am?  Would that be okay?” we asked.  Our final leg into this republic of over 1,100 islands had been easy;  our energy was good, our spirits high and the weather was hot but clear and calm.  I grabbed a bucket of precious fresh water and spent an hour-and-a-half trying to wipe off some of the salt we had collected on our way.  Just as I was finishing, a launch with 6 men, some in starched white uniforms was pulling along side.  Politely, they took off their shoes and climbed into our cockpit which provides luxurious seating for two people, comfortable seating for four but cramped and steamy seating for eight people in the equatorial heat.  All were very polite and helpful, our agent, Assad, explained each document that needed to be filled out and stamped.  Less than an hour later, they were waving goodbye and we lowered our quarantine flag and hoisted the Republic of Maldives courtesy flag.

Lop To
There were a few other yachts anchored off the small village and it wasn’t long before the couple on Lop To, a 37’ steel double-ender out of Hamburg, came by to say they had purchased fruit and vegetables for us at the market just after the supply ship arrived.  “It goes fast,” said Kerstin, “and we thought you might need some fresh food after your passage.”  We liked them immediately.  Assad had planned a barbeque on the beach for that night but Kerstin and Helmut encouraged him to postpone it for a night as they felt we might be too tired to stay up for a barbeque after a 5-day passage.

It isn’t just us but one of the first things that most cruisers want when they arrive in a foreign country is internet access.  Once again, Assad was our go-to guy and he met us at the small boat harbor where we tied up our dinghy.  He invited us to his home, where he lives with his wife, 8-month old daughter, his parents and his brother and his wife.  We sat on an uncomfortable couch, filled out the forms for the local cell carrier, Ooredoo, and drank kool-aid served by his wife.

It had been a while since we had visited a devout Muslim country, Malaysia being the last one.  One more time our hearts went out to the girls and women who dressed themselves in long, black burqas, covering everything but their hands and faces.  Despite our best efforts to get a smile from these women, their faces remained stony most of the time.  Men were much friendlier.  What we did find somewhat unusual was that every home had a high, gray concrete fence around it.  The streets were made of sand and were very tidy but we saw very little activity in the middle of the day.  About 500 people live in the village of Uligam.

Making Dried Fish Salad
The barbeque the next night was a great way to end a day of snorkeling and boat projects.  Couples from three boats showed up, each bringing a dish to share while Assad and a friend brought fish.  Assad’s friend went into the jungle and came back with a handful of leaves which he began to cut into fine strips.  To this he added way too much salt, chopped onions and dried fish.  It was delicious.  The fresh fish was cooked for much too long and covered heavily with hot sauce but it was quite good, too.  I’m sure I’ve been to a barbeque where there weren’t any alcoholic beverages but I can’t remember when.  Think of the money I’d save if I were Muslim!

Rutea - Photo Courtesy of Kerstin Neermann
It had been our intention to leave the following day but a wind came up out of the south (the direction we were headed) and a chop developed that inspired us to stay for another day.  The day after that was crystal clear and the water glassy.  We pulled up the anchor and hoisted the mainsail, mostly just for looks as there wasn’t any wind.  Our destination was where some cruisers that we had met in the Marquesas were anchored and they talked of spectacular snorkeling.  It was our first attempt at deep-water anchoring since we’d gotten here.  I’m reluctant to anchor if it’s too deep to dive down to free a fouled anchor and most of the spots around our friends were in excess of 80 feet.  We finally found a spot at 70 feet, which is still deeper than I’d like but the bottom looked like it was mostly sand.  Yes, even at 70 feet, the water was clear enough to see the bottom.

Our friends were right:  The snorkeling was fantastic with thick layers of bright coral and millions of tropical fish.  It reminded us both of Tonga, the island nation in our beloved South Pacific.  This is cruising at its finest.

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