“Executive” Withdrawals in an Island Paradise
I must be a horror to live with!
I’m all hyped-up with the thought of my pending visit to the Maldives – an out of the way republic comprising more than 800 small islands, in. the Indian Ocean about 3,500 km west of Singapore. Amenities in the resorts are rather primitive but at the very least I want fresh rainwater in the shower (not salt-water as offered by most of the hotels there), and an air-conditioned room.
I get all of that and a magnificent island paradise to boot, but I don’t see it that way at first.
The day I am leaving Hong Kong I have an appointment with a bone doctor at the Canossa Hospital. He x-rays and diagnoses a frayed knee cartilage in my left leg and recommends an operation and six weeks off work. Forget it! My mind is set on spending three days in Paradise over an Easter long weekend on my way to two weeks of business meetings in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. To my mind, my knee could be no more than an aching joint from the damp spell we’d been having for a week! What would a doctor with such a heavy hint of Scotch on his breath know? Maybe I should have listened though when he offered to provide me with a letter to Authorities for wheelchair assistance coming and going through airports!
Last minute details in the office consume the remainder of the morning before I race home to check what Norma has packed for me. Then to get through the Easter Holiday throngs to Kai Tak. The first of what is to become a series of frustrations occurs on my way to the airport. Flipping through my ‘new’ passport, which had just come back from the Indian Consulate, I can’t find the visa I require to enter India. In stunned silence, and through seemingly endless seconds, I decide to check my ‘cancelled’ passport that I happen to be carrying. There is the visa, on the back page of an invalid document.
Swearing at the stupidity of the consular office, I ask Lawrence, the Amex driver to take a quick detour into Wanchai. He locates a phone box in a Chinese take-out joint, and in a sense of false calm and measured tones, I describe my predicament to my secretary Sheena. As I do so, Lawrence flips through the ‘new’ passport and discovers the Indian Visa hidden in the back on page 46.
As I stand in the immigration line at Kai Tak with my knee hurting, I half wish I had the doctor’s letter for a wheelchair. Not to worry, I’ll soon be through and off to the comfort of the Marco Polo Lounge. ”Sorry Sir. Your Marco Polo card works only if you fly on a Cathay Pacific flight . . . unless of course you have a Gold one”. Mine was plain green, and so was I. Dejected, (or should I say rejected?) I hobble all the way back to a gate at the opposite end of the terminal and glumly await my Singapore Airlines flight.
The plane takes off on time, but it has to be their original 747. Whatever happened to the much touted “most modern fleet in the world?” A glass of nicely chilled Dom Perignon soon settles the senses, and I feel even better when I receive a Gold embossed invitation to wait for the next leg of my journey in the Silver Kris Lounge at Singapore Airport. Who cares if my name is spelled Mr Mysgrove?
As fate would have it, my plane to Male is docked at the furthest gate at the opposite end of the terminal. There’s a lot of activity there and I soon learn that my flight to s strip of coral in the middle of the Indian Ocean is but a stopover on an inaugural flight to Vienna. All the passengers receive a tape of Strauss Waltzes but that’s as Viennese or festive as we’re going to get on this midnight flight – aboard Singapore Airlines second oldest 747.
“Am I in the right mood to be landing in what has been billed as “The last Paradise on Earth?”
“Is my bag the last off?”
“Do I know that my hotel is three more hours away – by boat on an open sea?”
“No” to the first, “Yes” to the second, and Good Lord “No” at this hour to the last question.
While waiting for my bag, I am distracted and briefly fascinated by the proximity of the huge 747 towering above me on the tarmac. We’re standing on a strip of coral rising out of the ocean – no trees, no houses and minimal shelter for a terminal. The boat for my transfer to the Resort on the small Bi Ya Doo Island is moored at a jetty just a few hundred yards away. The whole setting is quite surreal. As I begin my sea journey into the darkness, the red under belly light of the 747 starts rotating; and with wing tips blinking, it lifts off like a flashing UFO into the night. I am left putt-putting on the dhoni (small boat) in the middle of the Indian Ocean with my life jacket for a pillow trying to ignore the bone shaking vibrations.
‘Executives’ with sore knees should never arrive in an island paradise at two in the morning. A non-speaking porter meets me at the dock in the still of the night. With little help from the moon behind the clouds, I stumble along the line of uneven concrete blocks set in the sand pathway (obviously a bonus in wet weather), and negotiate my way around palm trees to my room. This obstacle course brings a fuzzy recollection of a night in Bangkok last week in which I had to play slalom with sidewalk food vendors and massage parlour touts, as I picked my way through the pot-holed sidewalks of Patpong, with a passed-out colleague on my left arm.
I eventually arrive at the block furthest from the reception kiosk, a remoteness normal people would welcome. Still without a word from the porter, my suitcase is put down and I am left alone to my plain room. The stereotypical images of ‘Paradise’ that had half registered on landing at the dock have given way to a stark realism. The jasmine that wafted out to greet the boat on the night air has been replaced by the smell of a smouldering mosquito coil. A lonely stalk of coleus and a couple of frangipani in a bottle replace the gently swaying palm trees. And the full moon is replaced by a bare light bulb dangling beneath a pearl-shell shade.
Now the ‘withdrawal’ pains really start.
“What am I doing in a room with a cement floor and hanging space without doors?” This room is akin to a downstairs laundry at our beach house twenty-five years ago.
“Where’ s my telephone?”
“Where’ s the mini bar?”
“How can I adjust the air-conditioning?”
And the bathroom? A combination of putty and baby poop-coloured towels, no kleenex, a small wall water heater for a telephone shower, and no hot water for the sink. At least if I spray the shower around the room, I have nothing to damage. Thank goodness I have a face cloth from my SIA flight (and the colour matches).
“OK Michael. Sit on the loo and read about the great daytime activities, and find out where you are in relation to the resort’s facilities . . . “ No literature to be found – except for a tent stand on the bedside table extolling the virtues of brand new deluxe hotel of the same group in Colombo. How appropriate! (Take me to the Hilton!)
“Don’t worry Michael. After a good night’s sleep, you can relax on the reclining chair on your balcony, or even better, take it down by the water”. I shouldn’t have opened the sliding doors, because all I find on the balcony is a wooden towel rack! And a view out to the resort’s water tanks.
What to do? A sleeping pill and wait till morning. But what to take it with? The bottled water in the refrigerator is not sealed. And there’s no phone, or room service. And I can’t possibly hobble back to Reception. The ‘trauma’ continues. The air-conditioning that I’d insisted on, is aimed right at my bed and blowing an Arctic breeze down the back of my neck. I curl in a fetal position for shelter under the sheet and cotton cover, and try to ignore its Niagara-like roar.
Come morning I’ve experienced as yet an unrecognized triumph. I’ve slept. The sleeping pill worked. These troubles in Paradise obviously don’t plague the mind as much as my work-a-day frustrations that have a habit of keeping me awake plotting my next moves. Breakfast is well and truly over when I finally surface, and it is Good Friday – a day of fast and abstinence. I wonder if I get any points for fasting if I slept through one of the meals I was meant to deny myself?
After dressing I leave the Arctic cool of my room and venture out into the steamy, sunny morning. I maneuvre my way along the centre of the island, around the palm trees in the middle of the path. My shirt is stuck to my back and sweat is pouring off my face in rivulets. What am I doing here? I reach Reception and ask to see the GM. Not to complain. I just want to leave. Thankfully, a very pleasant Indian man makes me feel so welcome, and he is most understanding about my knee. He won’t hear of me leaving and arranges to move me to a room closer to the dining area. The fit-out is no different but on opening the curtain – instead of water tanks, I see the sea. Someone has made this ‘self-important’ dickhead feel welcome!
Lunch is a treat – freshly caught fish and delicious chocolate roll and custard. Italians, French, Germans and Japanese – a fashion feast of no more than wraparounds and oversized T-shirts, which have done the smart beach resort circuits from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. Hair-do’s feature your actual straight from the lagoon “wet look”, and bare feet quite outnumber the occasional brightly coloured espadrilles.
The ‘withdrawals’ are receding. As I wander back to my new room, I notice that other folk look very comfortable and cool lolling in the sand down by the water. I soon learn of the breeze by the water and the sheer comfort of the old cane chair. And how great it is to fight the fading light, to eke one, and another, and yet another page from my newly acquired Arthur Hailey novel, (Thanks Anavel.) But then at last light, it’s so easy to throw in the towel, and simply watch the sky and sea change to pink and red, and wait for the dark.
The spell is broken. I’m in Paradise. Windsurfing, sailing, and evening fishing expeditions beckon. A coconut thuds thunderously to the ground where I was sitting five minutes ago. Pandanus palms, almond trees, and the yellow flowering cotton form natural canopies for protection from the sun, and are ideal for reading and enjoying the breeze off the water. They also form a very visible natural root system, binding the sand and permitting the sea to lap the shoreline day after day without fear of erosion, something I’m very conscious of from my teenage years at Surfers Paradise. Why the Gold Coast Council selected the very same trees to bind the sand, and then planted them at ten-foot intervals instead of in clumps like this?
As I look out towards the reef, the crystal clear water sparkles with dazzling degrees of ink and aqua. It’s neither warm nor cold, nor is it too salty. A snorkel and goggles transforms it into my very own aquarium with fishes of all shapes and sizes to boggle my goggles.
And after all this, I have the luxurious convenience of walking across the sand and under the trees, right into my beachside bathroom. I am able to shower in fresh rainwater and spray the four walls carelessly with my telephone shower and not damage a thing. And I can carelessly drip dry on the delightfully cool bare cement floor and step freely into the dressing area not having to open any doors to see the shorts and T-shirts I might like to don.
How many days ago did I reject all this as primitive and wished I was at the Hilton?
Was it really only yesterday?
It doesn’t bother me one bit when I am soaked to the skin on the boat ride back to the airstrip in the middle of no-where. The salt has dried and my shirt is stuck to my skin by the time I board the Air Lanka flight to Colombo. No telephone showers on board but I manage with a quick wash in the sink of the aircraft’s lavatory before settling down to a glass of champagne and a lovely lunch. Ain’t life great!
Past Post Script
On a trip to New York a few weeks later, the company doctor sends me to a Park Avenue bone specialist for a second opinion on the knee. He advises me to sit on the kitchen table each morning with a four-pound bag of sugar in a cabin bag and lift my leg a few times. And it worked!