Veteran foreign correspondent Janine di Giovanni de-stresses in the Maldives.
Somewhere over the Indian Ocean, I began to read the used book I had picked up on a Paris bookstall about fish in the Maldives. The book was outdated, and worn, but the colours of the fish floating around the coral reefs were still spectacular: yellow, orange, gold, purple, green. I forgot about the 13-hour flight from Paris to Male with my son next to me glued to his GameBoy, and closed my eyes seeing fish.
I grew up near the sea, and began swimming, fishing and diving in waves when I was three. I’ve body surfed enormous waves on Zuma Beach in California, rough beaches in St. Barths and Biarritz. I love the sea: when I am truly stressed it is the only thing that heals me.
We landed in the toy airport of Male, which is the world’ most populated city, and my son, Luca, and I took a small plane to another tiny island airport, then a speedboat, orchestrating waves and swells, and then we were welcomed with drums and song by the staff of Dhevanafushi. Luca looked slightly amazed and embarrassed, but I loved it: It was my birthday the next day, a big one (I am not saying which) and for a moment, I got to fantasise about being Captain Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. My one island, or something like that.
The next day was my birthday, and when Luca and I sat down to breakfast, it was late. People rise early on islands, and the divers and sailors were already gone. The other guests were cool – I had been anxious the place would be full of nothing but doe-eyed honeymooners, but in fact, it contained a rather interesting mix: Chinese couples from Shanghai; high-tech wizards from Singapore; a few discreet Russians; a European or two. Frankly, we kept to ourselves and that was fine: our cottage, right on the beach, led to the sea and in the morning, we took our snorkels and fins and went for a morning skin dive. We had a blue-tinted pool running through our garden, that led to a stone outdoor shower – my favorite room in our house, and plenty of outdoor beds loaded with cushions to lounge about on and, as Luca put it, be as lazy as hell. It was glorious. We had a kind and efficient butler named Shah who organized everything, and I mean everything. He even packed my bag for me when I left, and showed me his tips on getting a week’s worth of clothes into a carry-on. ‘I’ve been doing it for twenty years,’ he said. ‘The trick is in the folding.’
For my birthday, Shah and the entire staff treated me like a princess. ‘You are our princess,’ they said, in fact, while Luca rolled his eyes.
‘She’s’ always a princess.’
Chocolate cake even better than the one from my patisserie across the street in Paris arrived for my breakfast, with candles and singing; my bed was decorated with fragrant rose petals in the shape of a heart, as was the foamy outdoor bathtub. Candles were lit, champagne was drunk, and at dusk I was taken for a sail and given more champagne. The sky was grey, lavender and shades of pink, and we sailed into the sunset before heading home. I sat with my son next to me, finished a bottle of champagne with a Lebanese friend, and had that wonderful feeling that at that very moment, the world was perfect and still. Before bed I smoked a sheesha with the Chinese couples, sipped a cocktail, and Luca gave me a jar of rose face cream he had bought in the spa.
In Vitavelli, the sister resort (we got there by travelling back by small plane to Male, then a short boat rides) the vibe was more family-oriented, and if possible, even more relaxed. Luca went to the kids’ club, whining that it was for babies – but in fact came back overjoyed that he had gone running with one of the staff, dug for crabs, and made homemade pizza – which he ate.
But the real game changer for me came from diving. I had dived before – in the Red Sea at Sharm al Shaikh – but never really understood the passion. I hated the mask on my face and the deep-rooted fear of getting the bends – which a childhood friend of mine did, scuba diving in Spain. Our teacher was Ahmad, a local. He had those wide splayed feet that Islanders get from spending a lifetime walking on sand, and for some reason, as I pulled on my rash guard and loaded my tank on my back, this made me feel secure.
I’m not easily impressed – a lifetime of travel has made me somewhat jaded (‘It’s just another walled city' I once said to a stunned boyfriend, once, in Spain, when I was a student), but to say that the diving at Vitavelli blew me away would be putting it mildly. Weightless, I floated above purple and rose-gold coral, swam with polka-dotted fish. he controlled breathing seemed to give me a head full of Zen, and I felt – for the first time in many years – truly relaxed. It was enforced, blissful mediation. All my anxieties about work and home were thousands and thousands of miles away. My offspring, as anxious at times as I am, was swimming with Ahmed, examining reefs. When he turned his head to me, I could see the widest smile beneath his mask: he gave me the thumbs up (which means, in diving terms that you want to go up to the surface, but he meant that he was happy).
We spent the rest of the trip in the sea, marveling, the two of us, at the peacefulness, the calm, the quiet. Cliché as anything to say it is another world, but of course, it is. I followed the fish as they dove for the ocean’s bottom, scooping up sand in their mouths. I knelt on the ocean floor transfixed.
When we were not in the ocean, we lay in hammocks and took walks on the island, or rode our bikes. It was hot, but not unbearable. At night, we walked back together in the pitch black to our cottage, carrying flash lights and taking midnight trips to our private beach to find crabs dug into their holes. We talked about Star Wars and school. It was the best mother-son trip I have ever taken. One night, Maldivian night, we had dinner in a buried sand cave draped with silks and blankets and lit with candles: I suppose it is really meant to be romantic and for lovers, but I thought it was one of those memories I will keep – just me and my boy – for the rest of my life.
I always thought St Barth’s was the highest I ever got in terms of relaxation, but I don’t think I will ever be able to swim or dive again without thinking of the clarity of the Indian Ocean, the color of the fish, or the serenity, the stillness and the strange feeling of stress-less-ness I felt at Vittaveli. It was the perfect birthday, and I was with the perfect date. It was such a good day, in fact, I almost forgot how old I was.
Janine di Giovanni is the author of The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria (Bloomsbury) and the winner of this years’ Hay Festival Medal for Prose, as well as the Courage in Journalism Award.