One bright afternoon, on a small island in the middle of the ocean, where palm trees dropped coconuts and crows squawked and played, an ordinary day was taking course. Over calm, emerald water, a ferry glided up to the pier. Three foreign women stepped off, accompanied by a man who lived on the island, named Mohamed. He led the women to a little guesthouse at a far, quiet corner where a refreshing breeze blew.
Just up the sandy path from the guesthouse sat a small home, easily missed, with a little blue plaque over the door that read Lovely Garden. Its wavy metal roof covered two tight rooms with rows of neatly stacked bunk beds and an even smaller kitchen and bathroom. This was home to seven Bangladeshi men. Each morning, all the men, but one, went to work building a new guesthouse on that little piece of paradise. One man stayed behind to prepare meals of rice and curry. Everyday was more or less the same- work, eat, play games on their phones. They didn’t hear of the three foreign women’s arrival, and likely never would have.
* * *
These women were travelers, simple nomads who had left their comfortable home in the United States, seeking connection, soaking in culture and learning all they could abroad. As active as their movement was, they began stagnating. They were back in Malaysia for the fourth time, falling into routine ways and feeling tired out. These travelers needed a push to get going again.
Two weeks earlier, the women had been contacted by a Christian man in the United States. He’d be bringing an art project to a hospital in the Maldives, a nation of islands, and asked if they would like to help. Ready for something new, the three women agreed.
In four days, the American man, Dave, and the women completed their hospital project on the island called Felidhoo. Dave was scheduled to move on to India, while the women would stay behind on the island for a month, the length of their visa. However, as the island was small and most of the guesthouse owners there related, a family feud broke out.
Brothers, fathers, and cousins fought over whose guesthouse would house the women for a month. The guesthouse price the women had agreed to before arriving to the island was tripled in consequence. So the women gave notice to the locals that they would not stay at the new, extortionate rate and planned to leave with their friend Dave on the ferry the next morning.
That night, Dave met a Maldivian man named Mohamed over dinner. As they shook hands, Mohamed wiggled his pinky finger on Dave’s palm. He went back to the guesthouse debating what kind of signal it was. After telling the women, they did a quick Google search to discover its meaning. Google defined the pinky wiggle as a gay handshake that can be seen as a sexual advance. Dave shook it off and thought he probably wouldn’t see the man again.
Early the next morning, the four foreigners set off. Dave was taking the ferry back to the capital for his flight to India and the women were trying to decide between two islands they could possibly afford to stay on. Dave leaned over and whispered to the women, “Do you see the man at the end of that row with the striped shirt? He’s the one who gave me the weird handshake!”
A social guy, the man in the striped shirt, Mohamed, recognized Dave and walked over to say hello. After some chitchat, Dave mentioned the foreign women’s predicament of not having a place to sleep that night. Mohamed pulled out his phone and negotiated for a low price at guesthouse owned by a friend of his. The women agreed to the deal just minutes before the ferry arrived at Mohamed’s home island, Fulidhoo.
Fulidhoo was a quiet island and easily walked around in 15 minutes. It had one restaurant serving rice and noodles, a dive shop, a small musical stage, a mosque, a school and some souvenir and food stores. Locals lounged on swings and chairs made of wood and rope, children clinked bottles together in the sand, and teams of builders worked on guesthouse projects all over. Most Maldivians living there came out at night and slept during the day due to the hot, tropical weather.
Near the soccer field, at the end of the island, a portion of beach was sectioned off for the exclusive use of bikini-wearing foreigners visiting that Muslim island. Palm branches, with their wide-gaped fronds, were selected to make a fence between the soccer field and bikini beach. Somehow soccer balls still made their way past the fence quite often, forcing a young, local soccer player to enter bikini beach and retrieve it.
All was going well for the women as they explored their temporary home. All was well, that is, until their stomachs churned and growled. They were at their limit for eating plain rice with chicken, so they couldn’t go to the local restaurant, and the guesthouse restaurant prices were quite high. They looked at each other and wondered, “What will we eat for a month?”
Kim to the Rescue
In the capital, on their first morning in the Maldives, the three women sat eating breakfast before meeting Dave and traveling to Felidhoo for the hospital art project.
“Felidhoo or Fulidhoo, how do you say it?” one of the women asked.
“Felidhoo, I think,” her daughter answered.
“Felidhoo and Fulidhoo!” a woman behind them exclaimed, “They are two different islands. Which one are you going to?”
“We are going to Felidhoo,” the daughter responded.
“Oh really? I am building a guesthouse on an island right across from Felidhoo. The islands are so close we will be able to see each other with binoculars!” She laughed.
She gave them quick instructions on how to take the ferry to Felidhoo and warned against using a bank to exchange money. “The people on Felidhoo are very unfriendly. Don’t exchange any money there. And the prices are higher than on my island, Keyadhoo. You should come visit me tomorrow.” “Okay, we will. See you tomorrow!” They exchanged phone numbers and emails, then she was gone.
Her name was Kim. She was from Hong Kong, but had been visiting the Maldives since 2010 and was moving there officially soon. A savvy businesswomen, she had plans to open two guesthouses on different islands. The building process in the Maldives is no straight-forward business. As she described it, the country worked by a system of bribery, blackmail, and corruption. She was having her fair share of a fight getting things done, but was not the kind of person to be trifled with or to easily back down.
During their visit on Keyadhoo, Kim took good care of her new friends. She prepped them with all they’d need for a month stay in the Maldives: SIM cards, local currency (traded at the official market rate,) and even a supply of nutella and kitkats.
When Kim found out that the women had moved on to Fulidhoo island, after the family feud on Felidhoo, she wished them the best and hoped to see them sometime again soon. But a couple hours later, Kim called the women back.
“I just realized that I’m building a guesthouse on Fulidhoo. I had forgotten, but I am employing a group of men to work on it and one of them is a chef. Go ahead over to where they are staying, it’s called Lovely Garden, whenever you’d like to use the kitchen. There’s a refrigerator too. It’s a pit in there though. And I’ll let them know you are coming for dinner. My chef will make meals for you all. They will expect you at 12 and 7:30pm everyday. You’ll just be like another one of the guys.”
We Speak Bangla
The seven Bangladeshi men didn’t often wander beyond their home and work area. Sometimes they’d visit the island mosque and do their duty as Muslims, or wait at the pier when they needed to catch the ferry, or walk to buy food and supplies at the store. And that was all. Neither did they socialize outside their own circle. They knew not the local language, Dhivehi, nor the travelers language, English.
Kim called the men and sent one to walk the women over for dinner.
The daughter found him waiting quietly outside of the guesthouse. She said hello and extended her hand in greeting. He smiled and shook her hand in return, but seemed both surprised and amused at the handshake. The other two women came out and asked him a couple polite questions, to which he responded, “No English.”
The three foreign women followed him along the path to Lovely Garden. They found it across a small forest of majestic banyan trees. A little table and chairs were set up outside and three, dusty grey wheelbarrows stood parked next to the open door. A small trash pile suffocated the only flowering plant there, but the sandy ground before the entrance had been neatly raked. Six pairs of sandals littered the doorstep.
By his stern, commanding manners, the women later decided that the 40-something year-old man who lead them over was the boss. He slipped off his shoes at the door and said to them, “Come, come,” motioning inside with his hand.
Inside they found cramped quarters that were kept neat and orderly. Pants hung along a rope in the corner and personal belongings were stowed under the beds. It didn’t look as if any of them owned much. A few men were lounging on their beds in sarongs, eyes on their phones. As soon as the women entered, they straightened up, threw on shirts and said hello.
The women tried in vain to speak to them, but the men just glanced at each other and said, “Only Bangla and Hindi.” An older man with a kind smile spoke up and asked, “How are you?” “You speak English!” one of the women exclaimed. “Only something-something… English something-something,” he answered. With some testing, the women soon found that was about as far as his English could go.
As an ice-breaker, the women tried to ask how old they all were. To get the question across, the daughter pointed to herself and said, “twenty one” then looked inquiringly at the closest man to her. The closest man happened to also be the closest to her in age. Before she could realize it, her question had come off as a bit forward. He blushed. The shy look of a child passed his face before answering. Women and men are not equal in the Islamic ideology and are mostly separated. He had probably never, or not often, been so directly and personally questioned by a Western woman. That shyness worked in his favor, however, for when she saw it, the daughter discerned that he was gentle rather than hostile. As she’d hoped, he didn’t seem offended by the foreign women’s intrusion into his home and life.
They successfully discovered each of their ages as the men knew numbers in English. The youngest man was 24 years old, the oldest 52. The chef’s name was Mohamed Anisur, but he told the women they could call him Anis. He was 31 and had the best English of all.
The women were bade to sit down round the kitchen table. Anis dished rice into three bowls out of a rice cooker big enough for an army, then placed a fragrant mixture of chicken, ginger, and vegetables on top. A collection of clear glasses sat on the table, but Anis gave the women three cute mugs with the word teatime painted on them. Everything was kept impressively clean, despite the challengingly small space Anis had to cook in.
The chef told the women how he learned to cook by working in restaurants in Dubai. When asked if he liked living in the Maldives, he cracked a smile and shook his head no. He reached into a duffle bag under the bunk bed in the kitchen and pulled out his passport.
Each page of the passport contained a picture of some special aspect of Bangladesh: a prominent government building, a war memorial or the bengal tiger. He fingered through it, explaining and showing them each page. He pulled up pictures on his phone of his family members and a picture of a large, well-maintained building. “This is the Bangladesh university,” he said. “It is the size of three islands and you can fish from the lake in front.” “Are there any Christians in Bangladesh?” they wondered aloud. “Most Muslim, some Hindu. Christian, okay, maybe something” he answered. Then he added, “We are all Muslim here.” “We are Christians,” the women answered.
For every meal, Anis sat with them. Out of politeness, the desire to communicate and decrease the awkwardness, the daughter brought along a pen and notebook and asked Anis to teach her some of the basics of the Bangla language. It became a ritual for her to greet everyone with “kay-moan-as-so?” (how are you?) each meal time. The Bangladeshi men found it pretty entertaining to hear her speak Bangla. They lit up in response saying, “Bah-low-ah-see!” which meant “fine.”
While waiting outside at the little table before the door, the daughter moved slightly in her chair, only to lose balance on the wobbly legs and fall off. Somewhat embarrassed in front of her audience, she quietly laughed and sat back down. The English something-something man stood up, found a sturdier chair, and said, “Sister, come, sit.” “Sister?” she thought, “How cute! I like that.”
Although Kim had said at meal times they would just be another one of the guys, Anis had been preparing separate meals for them with chicken or beef, which the men often did without. They’d find the kitchen table empty, the others choosing to eat before or after the women. But in only a few days, the novelty of their visits seemed to slightly wear off. The men began sticking around to eat at the same time and share the table.
The men would each grab a plastic bowl, pour water into it then swish it out into a bucket, pack in some rice, curry and a couple green chilies. They all ate with their hands. The daughter’s eyes went wide at the chilies and asked, “You can really eat that?” The boss laughed and nodded.
Chilies had become a joke on their behalf after Anis made the women a very spicy bowl of vegetable soup. They had had to eat it slowly, sip by sip, while their faces turned red and broke out in a sweat. Somehow, by the bottom of the bowl, their taste buds had adjusted and they were able to finish without tasting the spice at all. Anis had brought over the big chilly he used. Holding it up as evidence, he swore he had only used half.
The 24 year-old sat down when the boss had finished. “You speak Hindi, right?” the daughter asked him. “Yes, Hindi and Bangla” he answered. She looked down at her notebook where she had written what Anis said meant “How are you” in Hindi. She tried it out on him. “What?” he asked. The daughter put her face in her hand, “That doesn’t mean anything? How do you say, ‘How are you’ in Hindi?” He told her a completely new phrase: “Tum-casa-heir.” She wrote it down and practiced it out loud. He nodded and practiced with her. “And shukrya means thank you” he added. “This guy’s English is better than he lets on,” she thought.
The women continued visiting for meals, each day showing up at both 12 and 7:30, for a week. Then one day half the men were gone. “Where is everyone?” they asked. “Finished,” the boss answered, “Gone to Male.” From Anis they further learned that half the men went to the capital to start working on a new project for the same company. They were sad to discover that the sweet older “English something-something” man was one of the ones gone. The 24 year-old, the boss, Anis, and one other man remained.
As the days ticked by, it also came time for the women to move off the island.
The female trio arrived again for lunch at Lovely Garden, unbeknown to the Bangladeshis that it would be their last meal together. The women had excused themselves from coming for dinner the night before because they had been invited to a birthday dinner at their guesthouse. The reason of their absence was only known to Anis. As the women walked out of the kitchen for the final time, the 24 year-old called out, “Sister! Come for dinner!” and beamed a great smile. The daughter, unable to communicate in his language, could only smile back and say goodbye.
It was one of the strangest experiences the women had ever had, to enter into the temporary home of seven Muslim men and eat with them everyday, with a language barrier to boot. The opportunity was a privileged look into a culture they were completely unfamiliar with. For that small time, they learned of and experienced another way of life. And as he often likes to do, God chose the most bizarre and extraordinary of ways to provide for his daughters. He chose a group of seven Bangladeshis on a little island with snow white beaches.