Two Weeks in Malaysia and Sri Lanka

These past two weeks of island-hopping in Malaysia and scrambling around in Sri Lanka felt like months I had been out of China. Now I have returned to Beijing tanned and exhausted, but still, good times never last long enough. 

First stop: Malaysia

Feven and I spent a week on two islands in Malaysia — Pulau Penang and Langkawi. Islanders everywhere are generally Bob-Marley-loving, friendly people, but I felt it was especially true in Malaysia. Locals were surprisingly gracious to foreigners; they smiled, they were willing to give directions, and most satisfyingly, they didn’t give “tourist prices” (at least not that I was aware of). Best of all, Penang with its array of cuisines was absolute heaven for a food-junkie like myself. Let’s just say I’m all curried out…

One of the best things about traveling is meeting new people and being totally incapsulated by their stories as well as their ability to drop everything and travel for months and even years. Feven and I met a group of backpackers in Malaysia which consisted of 7 people (including us) from 7 different countries with diverse backgrounds and personalities. But the desire to see the world brought us together, squeezed in a car, touring Langkawi, enjoying one another’s companies and the island’s relatively untainted natural landscape. 

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The most unforgettable site was 700 meters high up in the mountains (thank goodness for cable cars) watching the sun set over an island in Thailand, and then getting engulfed by clouds. 

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As soon as Feven and I arrived back in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, to catch our flight to Sri Lanka, the contrast between the bustling city and the chilled island life was scarily drastic. But I suppose that’s true all over the world. 

Next stop: Sri Lanka 

Eight days was not nearly enough to see all that I wanted to see in this tiny island country. Between ancient cities, wildlife, the hill country, tea plantations, and beaches, Feven and I made tough choices to squeeze in as much as we possibly could. That resulted in cutting most hikes out and breezing down to Unawatuna beach for a couple days of rest and relaxation before returning to reality. 

Sri Lanka was an interesting experience for me and a particularly tiring one. I thought the Chinese were bad when it came to haggling, but OH MY WORD Sri Lankans were 10x worse!!! Unlike Malaysia, everything was at tourist prices, even the so-called “local prices.” Don’t even get me started on tuk-tuk drivers who depend on commission and will take you anywhere except where you asked to go. 

Most of the people we came across were men, usually because they worked as tour guides, in the guesthouses, as tuk-tuk drivers. Very rarely did women speak to us, and those who did could not speak much English. At first, the persistent haggling drove me to the point where I did not want to speak with any local men because I couldn’t trust them (i.e. our hotel manager insisted that we avoid the southern coast because of flooding and heavy rains and suggested we head over to Trimcomalee in the northeast instead, but we arrived to sunshine and perfect waves in Unawatuna; the ticket salesman at the train station sold us tickets at 100 rupees more than the listed price; a “monk” brought me and Feven to the altar and pressured us to donate money; on and on and on). Later, I relaxed and began to find their ridiculous schemes quite laughable. Simply ignoring them helped too. 

I think Sri Lanka is in an awkward in-between phase of increasing tourism and lagging infrastructure to host. It was awesome to be able to travel from place to place on public transportation with the locals at (mostly) local prices, but once I, the tourist, arrived at a popular tourist site, I’d pay up to sometimes 200 more than the local counterpart for admission. Of course it is wonderful that locals should not have to pay ridiculous admission fees to visit places within their own country, but when I’m ushered to the booth that says “Tickets for Foreigners”, am told to pay 2000 rupees to enter Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage when the Sri Lankan at the local booth paid 100, am tricked into paying another 1000 rupees to the staff who just offered to take my photo with the elephants, and then spot the “Foreigners Only” restroom…well, talk about segregation! 2000 rupees, or $15, is not a lot, but it adds up and worst of all, it gives you a feeling that it is unfair to have to give significantly more just for being a foreigner. And that in turn might drive (poorer/backpacking) visitors away in the long run.

On a positive note, there were parts of Sri Lanka that were absolutely stunning (including the elephant orphanage)!

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If there’s one thing I loved most about Sri Lanka it would be the train rides, particularly the one along the southwestern coast. Just like in the movies, I rode those trains hanging out the doorletting the salty wind sweep up my bangs. It was a glorious feeling. Even when I got an orange thrown at me from a group of boys hanging by the train tracks. 

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Unawatuna, a beach town off the southern coast of the island, was the perfect place to end our Sri Lanka adventure. Feven and I stayed in a fancy little hotel called Banana Garden at one end of the U-shaped beach, literally right on the water during high tide. Thanks to monsoon season, we were the only guests and we felt like royalty! It was such a wonderful stay that I left them a good review on Trip Advisor! Waking up and falling asleep to the sound heavy ocean waves felt like a dream that I didn’t want to wake up from. But alas, all good things come to an end. 

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It’s difficult for me to sum up how I feel about Sri Lanka. I guess it’s somewhat of a love-hate relationship (hate the incessant haggling, love the natural beauty) but if I ever have the chance to go back, I would definitely say yes because there is SOOO much more to see. 

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My Blooming Neighborhood

February

March

April


Ode to Pandas

Dearest pandas

you big fat lazy beasts

cloaked in heavy suits of black and white

who hang from tree limbs like dislocated joints

who chew on bamboo like its animal flesh

who mosey around because thats your life

to represent your country because you’re its gem

protected and pampered like China’s sons

as others toil the earth and starve

but that’s not your concern

and we love you regardless

because we can.

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If I could choose what to be in my next life, and this isn’t it already, I would be a panda bear. Why? Because they live the simple life: eat, sleep and play. They have little to worry about because everything is taken care of for them. They are like little princes, pampered from head to toe (although they could use a bath). They roll around in the food that they eat (did you know that they were carnivores centuries ago??). They get to hang with their homies all day, chewin’ on bamboo, hangin’ from trees, rollin’ down hills, spreadin’ out under the sun. They’re also incredibly lazy without a worry or care in the world. Some may argue that they lead unfortunate lives, trapped and exploited, but they are becoming extinct. And therefore need human protection! Anyway, if I could be a panda who didn’t know any better than the life I was living, I would be happy camper.

I fell in love with these great balls of fur when I visited them at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu (I’ll tell you more about this trip later). Here are some photos for you to see so you can fall in love with them too. (Notice that the pandas and I have the same dark circles around our eyes..it’s a clear sign of our souls’ connection.)



Are they not just the most lovable, huggable, adorable living things on this planet?!

Finally, remember:


Ancient Chongqing

Two hours outside the city center is Mount Baoding, one of two mountains in Dazu County (I wrote this incorrectly in my last post), a World Heritage Site (checkin’ it off my bucket list, oh yeah!). On the mountain are Dazu Rock Carvings of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian influence from the days way before yore. People back then obviously had a lot of time, patience and unmatched artistic abilities as they were able to produce these magnificent sculptures and carvings. Here’s what I’m talking about:



Guanyin and the Thousand Arms

The rock carvings are some of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s amazing to me that something from centuries ago (7th century AD to be exact, thanks Wiki) can still exist.

Dazu county, besides the mountains, is known for its quality knives. Many modern rock sculptures–lions that guard banks for example–are also made here. I guess the skills from sculptors of the Dazu Rock Carvings were inherited by today’s Dazu residents; it’s in their blood.

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Not quite as old as the Dazu Rock Carvings is Longxing Ancient Town, which I dub “Mahjong Heaven.” Despite it being a tourist attraction, fortunately still a minor one, my walk through the old alleys felt more like a stroll through the locals’ neighborhood. People hung out everywhere–a girl washing her hair in a bucket on her doorstep, kids running around being kids, all the cafes filled with people playing mahjong, clothes drying outside, the elderly on break from mahjong resting on benches chatting away, vendors selling goods at their front door. It is the friendliest, most bustling and homey town I’ve come across in a long time, perhaps because it is small. But actually, in general Chongqing gives off a friendlier vibe than Beijing. Maybe it has to do with the climate. Colder weather, colder people? Warm sunshine, warmer people?

Mahjong Madness!

 

Longxing used to be farmland, but the Chongqing government in its endeavor to develop the city bought the land (I believe for a fair price) and began building it up. My aunt says the reason people there have so much time to play mahjong (aside from it being Spring Festival) is because these former farmers have no more land to cultivate, and also because they are much better off than when they were farmers (they now run all the small businesses in town). My aunt also says in 10 years this part of Chongqing will become the next most developed area of the city. If this is so, I’m glad I got to visit Longxing before the streets become crowded with tourists.

We bought two chickens from him. (Is that a beer in his hand?! I just noticed this! I've been noticing a lot of new things in my photographs since this new WP theme displays HUGE photos!)

Here they are! (Sorry chickens, but you are guaranteed fresh. I hope you have a better afterlife.)


This little one's got the blues.

and this little one is pooping in the street hehehehe (I didn't notice the poo under her butt until I uploaded this photo!!)

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High Rolling in Macau

I just gambled away a small fortune (in Yuan, so divide that by 6.2 and you’ll have an even smaller fortune in $$) in Macau. Don’t judge me. I’m just trying to assimilate.

My 90 days were up on my visiting visa so I had to make a reentry into China. Macau, one of China’s two “special administrative regions” in Southeastern China (the other is Hong Kong), was a close getaway so there I went for two nights with my parents. We stayed at The Venetian, a fancy hotel casino for a fancy lady.

It was pretty astounding to drive around this little city on a peninsula scattered with towering casinos. It was also pretty bizarre. Macau was a Portuguese colony until 1999, when it was handed over to China, but most people speak Cantonese. I couldn’t figure out who were ethnic Macanese (Portuguese descendants) because the city was overrun with tourists, mostly from the mainland. There were also a few Russians, several Indians, some Europeans and groups of young Americans–the most diverse atmosphere I have encountered since my trip to the Maldives. I’m not talking ethnically diverse, though, because if I were, mainland China is definitely most diverse.

The historic centre of Macau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its symbol of an east-west relationship as it is the oldest international trading port. The city’s architecture is a blend of Portuguese, Chinese and contemporary Western influence (huge-ass casinos), with Chinese and Portuguese on every street sign. Walking through Largo do Senado (Senado Square), I was actually quite reminiscent of my days in Europe where buildings are small, pathways are narrow and cobblestone, and windows have shutters. If there hadn’t been so many Asian faces, people in general, Chinese store signs and undergarments hanging from windows, I would’ve thought I was in Europe. Sort of.


Near Largo do Senado rests the Ruins of St. Paul’s, a 16th century Portuguese cathedral, the largest in Asia at the time but one of several churches throughout the city. Aside from the casinos, this area around Largo do Senado was all I saw in my day and a half in Macau.

One thing I did enjoy immensely about Macau, besides the multicultural architecture, was the food. I tried Portuguese oxtail which was okay–too sweet–and their most popular pork chop sandwich–a thin filet of deep fried pork chop tucked between two buttered toasted buns. But Chinese-Macau food, I believe similar to Hong Kong cuisine, was the bomb, and thanks to my uncle’s superb connections, I got to try some of Macau’s best and most authentic cuisine. With seafood so fresh I forgot I had allergies. From meaty sauteed crab with bitter melon and Hong Kong style dim sum, to salt and pepper prawns and Macau’s special hot pot, it was an Asian gastronomer’s dream come true.

If you asked me to visit Macau again, I would definitely go just for the food. As for gambling? I can do without.


Goal: Quit My New Job and Travel

I was looking through old photos from my travels while I was studying abroad in college, and it made me miss my independence. In my second year at Ithaca College (I later transferred to NYU), I decided the town was too small for a gal like me and signed up for a semester in Spain. Little did I know, I would never return to Ithaca.

When I first arrived in Barcelona, I was excited for a change of scenery. I stayed with a senora, her cat Deraymon and her wonderful boyfriend Armand (they were an old couple, so it was exceptionally sweet). I also couldn’t have asked for better roommates; the four of us were completely different but we got along like sisters and are still in touch today even though we’re each on a different continent (Hannah is in Guatemala with the Peace Corps. Check out her blog!).

Hannah (Guatemala), Me (China), Deanna (New York), Ashley (London)

At the very beginning of this trip, everything was new and exciting, especially the night life. As the first weeks went by however, it started to get a little bit lonely and I spent hours upon hours getting lost and people-watching in cafes–that is how I became addicted to coffee. But gradually I started to cherish all the alone time I never had in college. At such a small school like Ithaca, it was impossible to escape, even for a moment. In Barcelona, I felt like I had all the space in the world and it was freeing.


On weekends and breaks from classes, I visited surrounding countries like Portugal and Italy, both of which I traveled to alone. That’s what brought me to write this post; I realized while going through my photos that some of my best memories have been during trips that I’d taken by myself.

Me at Parque Guell in Barcelona

Sure, it got lonely at times–like the 23 hour “cruise” from Italy to Spain, during which I just had to dream about Titanic–but the majority of my time was spent gawking over Europe’s beauty both in landscape and in people. All that space and time also made me think, about anything and everything. I remember sitting at the front of the boat, staring into the endlessness of the sea thinking that if I were to die in that moment, I would’ve died happy,  and my life would’ve been a good one. Of course I didn’t die, in fact I’m alive and kickin’, but the point is I was happy, and I was alone then.

I wasn’t always alone though. Making friends was easy as everyone in hostels seemed to need a friend–I still keep in touch with some of them. Some of my best friends from the States also came to visit and traveled with me as well while I was in Spain.  I also went to Morocco with friends and had the most amazing

experience of my life driving through the desert with Berbers and sleeping under the stars.

Mohamed headed to the depths of the sand dunes where life is good.

I miss that independence terribly, and wish I could explore China the same way–just me and my backpack, although a friend wouldn’t hurt. My situation is different now though; I live with my mom and I have a full-time job. What I’m living now is life, but not the life I have in mind. It sounds silly to complain about my job while millions of people can’t even find one, but I’m not one to stick with something I’m not happy with (my ex-boyfriend was an exception). I realize that I am so lucky to have the privilege to say, “I’m not happy here. I’m quitting.” But that’s exactly what I plan on doing, because my time here (in China) is short (give or take a few years, but compared to a lifetime it’s not a long time). I want to make sure I take the time to explore the country in which my ancestors  who I know absolutely nothing about are from, to learn about my heritage, this language, and my family (I didn’t even know what my grandparents’ did for a living until recently, and I still can’t remember my grandma’s Chinese name).

Portugal

Lonely Planet: China is already collecting dust on my bookshelf (Beijing is an exceptionally dusty city) and waiting for its pages to be flipped through. I am getting antsy at my job thinking about all the places that await me, food that has yet to be tasted, people I have yet to meet. It helps that I read so many amazing accounts of people’s travels through WordPress that inspire me to quit my job. Therefore, whether or not my parents will allow me–yes, after years of living on my own, I am back to curfews–to travel by myself, I will think of some way to find the space and those alone moments I once cherished.

Free!


Lettuce Rejoice for Winter!

Today is “Lidong,” the beginning of winter on the lunar calendar. Funny because it was mighty warm today, though the sun did go down around 5 pm.

 

The view at work was clear because it drizzled early this morning. Normally, my view looks like this:

Winter is lovely, but the sun goes down too early making the last stretch of work absolute torture.

For my friends who care, this is what my office looks like:

Feel my pain.

And for those same friends, can you picture me in one of those slots under the translucent lighting??! I can barely sit still in front of a TV in a cozy living room!

I digress.

Lidong… yes, on Lidong Chinese people traditionally eat dumplings. But who follows traditions anymore? Instead, I came home to a MOUND of surprise.

"Flash" photos on my camera come out terribly. My sincerest apologies for your visual displeasure!

My neighborhood was handing out free LETTUCE! Insecticide-free!  Each apartment unit can carry home 2 bags. My mom and I hate turning down free things, so in the elevator we went with our share.

Why, you might ask, is our neighborhood distributing lettuce to its residents? It’s because a nearby farm yielded way more lettuce than they could sell (one gigantic head of lettuce at the market costs .90 Yuan, which is about a $0.16, so basically it’s worth nothing). More significantly, however,  it’s because contractors bought the land and need to clear it for apartment complexes that will be sold at exorbitant rates.

Anyhow, this lettuce is going to last all winter long. I foresee a mountain of dumplings, endless bowls of chicken soup and maybe even kimchi (which is Korean!) in the upcoming months. Too bad I don’t have rabbits or turtles to share my treasure with.

Sleep tight, sweet lettuceheads.

 


Early this morning at the Table of Life

Before I took the photo, this elderly man had his ear to the radio (you can see the antenna poking out behind his hand) while his dog(s) stood guard — one fell asleep. This was 8:00 this morning. I wasn’t lying when I said there is always someone at that precious table.

 


Strolling through Tiananmen Square

After another unappetizingly large meal, my mom and I decided a stroll was in order. Instead of taking the routine path in our neighborhood, we hopped on a bus and then the subway to Xidan, where we would commence our stroll towards Tiananmen Square. This was Sunday, the day after National Day, when everyone from everywhere wanted to be in the same place: Tiananmen Square.

Our “stroll” turned into push, which of course turned into shove. It’s not often I get to take an unobstructed photo of Tiananmen!

Beijing is already an overcrowded city, but during national vacations, it really becomes “people mountain, people sea” (the literal translation of a Chinese expression “人山人海” that is equivalent to “a sea of people”).

"People Mountain, People Sea" = "人山人海"

I dare say the crowd exceeds that of Canal Street and Times Square, combined. Although, I have to admit, it’s quite exciting. In every corner, tucked amongst the crowd are goodies, more like junk, that tourists just  have to have. For example, candied fruit

Even mommy dearest has a sweet tooth.

and cotton candy.

spun roadside

I did not take pictures of corn on the cob, light-up horns, Chinese flag stickers, and other fun toys that were illegally profiting on sidewalks, because I was too busy taking pictures of lights! As much electricity as all the lights waste (not any less than other cities like NYC), they sure are pretty.

Streetlight

Chinese lanterns lined the street from Xidan to Tiananmen.

Entrance of a government building

Chairman Mao's monument in background

Guards on duty

This gentleman got in my way, but I thought it made for a nice photo anyway.

I, too, wish to be carried around by wagon when I reach that age.

Extreme sports at such a tender age...

This little girl above is not only a speed demon, she is a law-breaker! A criminal! This sign below clearly depicts no rollerblading allowed!

So what CAN I do? Breathe?!

Around the corner from Tiananmen Square is Wangfujing, a large shopping plaza soaring with people. The photo is blurry, but you get the picture!

The oldest and most famous department store my grandma frequented when she was my age.

With the music on full blast, the lights fully lit, and shiny ceramic pill cases piled high, how can anyone resist stopping in for a look even at 10:30 on a Tuesday night?

I haven't yet, but I plan on purchasing one of these fine T's which I will sport back in the US.

Have I convinced anyone to visit me in Beijing with these alluring photos yet? Anybody?

Perhaps after a few more posts. For now, I must get some rest before my first day of work tomorrow! Woohoo! Back to long morning commutes. Just like my days in Brooklyn.


Mushi Mushi Iru Fushi

Sorry for the delay folks! I’ve been away for 3 weeks, but I’m finally back in Beijing where I have unlimited internet access and my own computer so I can upload the long awaited photos from the Maldives.

Like I wrote in my last post, the Republic of Maldives is as close to Paradise as I’ll ever get. There are over 1100 islands of which 800 or so are uninhabited. Many of those that are inhabited, though, are owned by resorts like the Hilton on the island of Iru Fushi where I stayed for 4 days. Before this trip I did not even know where the Maldives were. Now, I’d like to make it an annual trip before the ocean rises and the islands disappear… Besides, my mom could use the vacations. She works hard.

On September 1st, my mom and I arrived at Kunming International Airport with one suitcase and one cardboard box full of ramen noodles, pears, canned ham, moon cakes, candy, crackers, nuts, and spicy pickled vegetables. 6.5 hours later we were in Male, the most densely populated city in the Republic of Maldives, where we stayed overnight.

Locals arriving at the airport by boat (Male in the background)

The next morning, it poured. Monsoon season… no wonder the tickets were cheaper. When the rains cleared, we took a rocky boat ride back to the airport and were transported to the other side of the island where we would hop on this amazing little piece of  machinery that would take us to Iru Fushi.

Trans-Maldivian Airlines

The pilot flew barefoot! In Chinese we would say, “Hao shuang, ah!” (“So coooool!”)

The pilot looked like Harrison Ford!

What I saw from overhead was absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful. Here are a few photos, but let me just warn you, they don’t even come close to capturing the true colors and reality of how gorgeous this country is.

 

Crayola does not do justice to “turquoise” or “aqua marine blue,” neither do my photos. The light blues are crystal clear, and the dark blues have infinite depth, and the varying shades of blue and green in between are so bright only film negatives can possibly produce a similar translucent effect. With my forehead glued to the window and my jaw dropped, all I remember thinking was, Places like this actually exist?
Apparently they do.
We were greeted on the island by a hot wet towel and a Chinese hostess (one of 4 or 5 employees that speak Chinese) who led us to our deluxe beach villa where we would stay for one night before moving to our water villa. Unknowingly, my mom had booked us for a honeymoon deal, but the bottle of champagne, plate of fresh fruit and a $50 discount for a couple’s massage is well worth the funny looks.
In China, women do everything to keep their skin white while Westerners and Eastern Europeans prefer to tan. So, when the sun shines on Iru Fushi, the Chinese tourists like to stay indoors while the rest snorkel and sunbathe. Having grown up in America where tanning is trendy, and because I really just don’t care, I took full advantage of my natural surroundings even if that meant I would be unattractively dark back here in China. And so I snorkeled and swam and strolled along the beach under the powerful rays of the beautiful ball of fire.
In between, I also did some scuba diving.
Swimming along the coral reef is like walking through Times Square in the mid-afternoon, only it’s less crowded. Every color imaginable exists under water, and the diversity of life – turtles, fish, plants, urchins, etc.- is just plain awesome. It really is a whole other world down there, exactly like the cartoons! It was not a cheap adventure, but it was worth it.
The next day, my mom and I went dolphin watching. I didn’t think anything could be as impressive as scuba diving, but dangling my legs over the edge of a boat with dolphins swimming beneath me was far more exciting than I expected. We did not have to go far before we saw little black speckles in the ocean. Those black speckles were the fins of hundreds of dolphins swimming and jumping out of the water like Flipper does so well. Maldivian dolphins are small and gray with tiny eyes and a slender snout, and they sure are cute.


Amazing, right?

Anyway, that was an unforgettable morning, unlike the next one when I didn’t catch any fish. Taking advantage of another honeymoon couple’s deal, my mom and I went on a complimentary fishing trip. Instead of using fishing rods, we just held onto a reel with fresh tuna as bait for 2 hours, like so:

Unfortunately, fish kept eating my tuna faster than I could pull them up. My mom, however, lucky as she is, caught a white snapper.

The next day, that poor thing turned into this:

Lunch

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There is not much to do on a small island, but there is so much to see. Sunrise and sunset, for instance. I’m not one to sap over beautiful things (my mom is), but I swooned over this view (sunrise):

And this one (sunset)…

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As beautiful and relaxing as Iru Fushi was, there was some sadness to it as well. It’s a wonderful place to vacation, but when you are one of 3 Chinese people on a tiny island, it can be very lonesome. Shine, my diving instructor, is 25 years old and has been working in the Maldives for over a year. The employees get a 3 week vacation yearly, but 21 days out of 365 to see family and friends is still little time. Shine speaks English so she can communicate with the tourists and her coworkers, but it’s not her native language, thus she remains homesick. But it’s not the language that’s troubling, it’s the fact that she’s basically stuck on an island that she can never call home. Iru Fushi is gorgeous, but even so, when there is limited space for mobility and escape, one can still feel trapped.

Shine is from a small city in China, but I met Hilton employees from all the world, including Russia, Nepal, India and Germany. The local islander employees, however, are much closer to home. They are also some of the friendliest people I have ever met. Perhaps they are trained to be so, but regardless, they are playful, genuinely interested in learning about your language and country, and are always willing to take photos with you.


I made some good memories on this trip, however short it was. To show off my novice photographic eye and my delectable tan, I’d like to leave you with more photos (some credit goes to my mom). Perhaps one day we can visit Maldives together!