Wednesday, February 21, 2018

State of emergency in the Maldives - is it safe to visit?

In short - YES.
It is perfectly safe to visit the Maldives while the state of emergency is in effect.

Yet despite this very obvious answer, people keep asking questions on different travel forums if "everything is ok over there?" and "would like to know if it's safe?" and "should we cancel our vacation?"

Reading these questions you might be excused for thinking that the Maldives were hit by a major natural disaster of epic proportions, a tsunami perhaps. Or experiencing an outbreak of a particularly virulent disease.

The reality is a lot more mundane (isn't it always, though?).
It has to do with politics (doesn't it always, though?).

The truth is that the Maldives have been experiencing political turmoil for years (if not decades). And the truth is that tourists visiting the country know nothing about it, because it does not impact them in ANY way.

Most people asking such questions are too lazy to fire up Google and learn the three things they need to know.

One, the Maldives is an island country. There are many, many islands there. Unlike in countries that are not islands, the capital city is located on its own island.

Two, the airport is located on a different island than the capital city, despite sharing the same name. Thus, Malé International Airport, or more officially, Velana International Airport is located on Hulhulé Island. Despite being named "Malé", it is not actually in Malé.

source: wikipedia

To get from the airport to Malé you need to take a ferry. However, most tourists never even visit Malé, because they are picked up by their resorts right at the airport and taken there directly. There is no need for them to travel to Malé.

See? You need to take a ferry to travel between Malé and the airport island.

And third, whatever unrests or demonstrations were taking place, they were confined to Malé. And as we now know, tourists don't go to Malé, because Malé is not a place to go on vacation.

Personally, I enjoy Malé very much, but I am weird like that. 99.99% of tourists do not share my fondness for the Maldivian capital city. But more about it in a second. 99.99% of tourists avoid Malé like the plague, and head straight for the resorts.

 Because if you are paying thousands of dollars for your holiday, you're not interested in seeing how the natives live, right? You want your paradise beach vacation and an overwater villa with a private pool. These are the Maldives from tourist brochures and there are the Maldives that people come to see. And these are the Maldives that are absolutely unaffected in ANY way by whatever might be going on in the capital city.

So, is it safe to visit the Maldives while the state of emergency is in effect (and it has just been extended)?

YES! It is perfectly SAFE to visit the Maldives right now. The resort islands are as safe as they have always been.
And what about the capital city?
Are you planning to take part in anti-government demonstrations? No? Then it is perfectly safe to visit Malé right now, too. Just use your common sense. Just like you would use your common sense in your home country.

What surprised me the most was that the most persistent askers were people from countries that are not exactly known for their safety and law and order. Yet, when asked to articulate their fears about travel to the Maldives, they are lost for words. They can't explain what's so scary about landing at Velana International Airport and transferring to a speedboat or a seaplane to get to their resorts.

Seriously, I am a lot more worried about my personal safety while traveling in India than about political turmoil in the Maldives.

The Maldivian government, though authoritarian it may be, is not stupid. It knows that tourists equal cash. No tourists means no money. The Maldives need that tourist money to survive. That is the bottom line. Nobody wants to bite the hand that literally feeds the entire country.

And that is the explanation why, if you hadn't read the news, you wouldn't even have noticed anything out of the ordinary in the country.

In Malé, it's business as usual.

Public gatherings are prohibited during the state of emergency. So, unless you are planning to join political demonstrations, you are going to be perfectly safe.

Would relaxing in the park be considered a public gathering? Of course not. It's clear people just go about their business as they have always done.

And despite the ongoing state of emergency, there is hardly any police presence on the streets. There are plenty of people and motorbikes, though. You are more likely to get injured in a scooter accident in Malé than to witness any sort of political unrest.

Personally, I hate scooters. Especially considering that a typical Malé street gives a new meaning to the word "narrow".

Malé is the smallest capital city in the world. At the same time, it's also the most densely populated one. The only time when the streets are free of people is very early in the morning, preferably on a Friday.

Everyday life keeps going. Only the tourists are panicking for no reason at all.

Malé could never be called a beautiful city. It's the opposite of beautiful, to be honest. Yet it has a vibrant non-stop energy that you can literally feel in the air. In that respect, it's similar to other cities in South Asia. What makes Malé different is the fact that it is a lot less dirty than other South Asian cities. And that is a lot more safe than other cities in South Asia.

Because unlike in other South Asian cities, I feel safe walking around Malé alone.

In the meantime, the state of emergency has been extended yesterday for another 30 days. It is due to end on March 22. What will happen after that is anybody's guess. One thing is certain though, tourism will NOT be affected.

Let me repeat it one more time, tourism will NOT be affected. Just as it is safe now, it will be safe to visit the Maldives next month, too.

Are you still panicking?
With the current situation in the world, you are probably more likely to be gunned down while visiting the US, or getting nuked while shopping in Seoul.

If you are still scared and want to cancel your trip to the Maldives, please donate your vacation to me. I will gladly take your place.

I'll even send you a postcard!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Giri choko, Valentine's Day and White Day in Japan

Valentine's Day came and went. Depending on where you live, you probably gave and got something sweet and chocolatey from your significant other, friend, family member, classmate, or whoever else.
Except if you happen to be a woman in Japan.

You see, Valentine's Day in Japan is an interesting animal. It's not a lovers' holiday (though it's sloooowly evolving into something similar to it, just give it a couple more decades).
Traditionally, it's a day when women give chocolate to men to say "thanks for being a man."

 Sweets for the soccer fan in your life

Nowhere is it more striking than at a typical Japanese company. On February 14th female co-workers come to the office with packs of chocolates to gift to their male colleagues.
Because I work with a horde of men, and because my workplace is a fairly traditional one, I joined the tradition. This year I prepared 30 packets of "giri choko" to give to the men at the office.

Chocolate for the chess fan in your life. I hate the fact that it's all milk, milk, milk and milk. Disgusting.

Wait, what's this "giri choko" thing?

In English - literally obligation chocolate. Chocolate you give, because you should (or you must), not because you have romantic feelings for someone. Chocolate you give out of... well... obligation. Because it would be bad manners not to.

I didn't want to be known as the gaijin with no manners, so like a good little office lady, I did my Valentine's Day duty. But at least I tried to do it my way. Which in this household, it means either "cats" or "Star Wars". Went with the Star Wars way.

 Of course, featuring Kylo Ren! #Reylo forevah!!!

Made 30 of these little baggies.

That way the men knew exactly who gave it to them, and hopefully will remember me next month (more about it in a sec).

I kept the cats for myself.

Sadly, they were not that good.

In all fairness, women also give chocolates to other women on Valentine's Day in Japan. And some of the more progressive men do bring sweets for the office ladies, as well.

That's why you can see more feminine selections on Valentine's Day, too.

Children get in on the fun, too. There are plenty of kids' friendly options to choose from. I mean, just look how cute these Gudetamas are!

Or perhaps, Kitty-chan for that special friend in your class?

Bestie is a Sumiko Gurashi fan? No problem!

Whatever your little ones like, you can find it pretty easily. My experience was that usually kids give sweets to everyone, because it's not good if someone gets left out.

In fact, some schools and companies actually encourage equal opportunity chocolate giving on February 14th, saying that either everyone should get something, or no one at all. Some workplaces go even as far as banning White Day completely.

Wait, what's this White Day thing?

On Valentine's Day the more conscientious males try to keep track of the women who gave them sweets. Good manners dictate that on March 14th the men should reciprocate and gift something back. March 14th is a uniquely Japanese occasion known as White Day. "White Day" because of white chocolate, get it? (Fuck that, I HATE white chocolate!)

These are cute, but I don't want them. Milk chocolate is vile. White chocolate is even worse.

White Day was invented purely as a marketing ploy to sell more chocolate. But, as a typical reciprocal rate hovers at around 20%, despite the best advertising efforts, the popularity of White Day is waning. When seven years ago I made a comment that White Day was losing ground in Japan, I was ridiculed by self-proclaimed Japanese Cultural Experts (JCE for short) for my apparent ignorance and lack of cultural knowledge. The changes were subtle back then and easily missed by casual observers.

This year the changes are more apparent. At local shops White Day displays are about half or 1/3 the size of Valentine's Day displays. The selections are slimmer and not as attractive as even a few years ago. Yes, it's still a long time until March 14th, but when I asked the staff at a few local shopping centers, they said there were no plans to make the selections larger, or the displays more flashy.

Part of the reason is that mothers and wives of those male office workers (what? you actually thought that guys buy stuff for their female co-workers personally? LOL, you're so naive) choose different types of gifts to give to the office ladies. Women know women. Women know that not every woman will eat cookies, or chocolate, because staying thin is always in style. Instead, items like flavored coffee, fancy hand creams, cute hand towels and bath bombs are popular. Lush and Body Shop do brisk business before White Day. As does Starbucks.

I'm very picky about my chocolate, too picky some may say. Because of that I prefer non-sweets White Day gifts. I'm not a fan of Lush, but if I had to choose between milk chocolate and a bath bomb, I'd go with the bomb 100%. Or some yummy dates.

Unfortunately, not all men remember, or care, who gave them "giri choko" on Valentine's Day. In fact, I'd say, most don't. The usual rate of "obligation" White Day gifts is around 20%.

This year, to the surprise of most people, Godiva had spoken against obligation chocolate by placing a full page ad in the February 1st edition of Nikkei Shimbun. In it, Godiva Japan's president, Jerome Chouchan blabbed about:

"Of course, it's good to give chocolates to the person you really love, but there's no need for obligation chocolates. In fact, in this modern era, it's better not to have them. [...] Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day when you confess your true feelings. It’s not a day on which you’re supposed to go out of your way to keep good relations at work."

Really? What does he care? Godiva, shit as it is, is too expensive to be given as obligation chocolate. I guess he was mad that other (read: cheaper) companies are doing brisk business, but Godiva is not. Well, sorry sweetie, but take a wad of chocolate and shove it up your ass. You're just salty that you're not getting a piece of the "giri choko" action. Not only is your chocolate utter garbage, the only reason why it's considered "luxurious" is because of its ridiculous price.

The reaction to the ad was mixed. Some were agreeing, some were not. Some just straight up laughed about it. Most thought it was "stealth marketing", precisely for the reasons I mentioned above - Godiva not moving enough chocolate before Valentine's Day. It just shows how out of touch with reality the Japanese branch of this company is.

One Japanese chocolate company, Yuraku Confectionery, which has a line of cheap chocolate with a very porny name - Black Thunder - shot back at Godiva.

Black Thunder is super cheap, and by all accounts, decent chocolate. In other words, perfect "giri choko", and Yuraku Confectionery are proud of it. They know what they are making and they embrace that part of the market. Their message to Godiva was "shut up and shove it" but said in a nice and polite Japanese way.

And yeah, I agree. To each its own.

I did my part.

Now, let's hope I am going to get something decent on March 14th.

PS. Yeah, I did get something on Valentine' Day. This massive pack of strawberry flavored confectionery. I shared the white stuff with my friends, and ate the rest. It was delicious.

Audrey seems to be a Yokohama-based company. I absolutely adore their designs!!!

PS2. Some Japanese women and girls "make" Valentine's Day chocolate. Meaning, they buy a chocolate block, melt it and pour it into form moulds. What is the point of this exercise? I really have no idea. Especially since newspaper articles claim that men prefer store bought sweets!

Cookie forms to pour your "homemade" chocolate in.

And boxes to package your "homemade" gifts. 

Meh, not for me such pointless activities. I mean, any idiot can melt a block of chocolate. Nothing to brag about here. Japanese women are strange...

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Visiting Planet Scarif - part 1

I am a huge Star Wars fan, that much is true. I carry my computer to work in a Star Wars bag. I drink my tea out of a Star Wars cup. Even my cat has her own Star Wars dish.

To be honest, I was never that much into Star Wars Rogue One. Yeah, it was an OK movie, but just OK. It seemed very paint by numbers to me.

Noooo... I'm not a Rogue One fan... This mousepad just casually fell into my lap after the premiere screening. Actually, two of them, to be exact.


When I realized that visiting planet Scarif was very much possible, I was on expedia booking my tickets faster than Luke could draw his lightsaber. So much for not being a Rogue One fan. Ha!

And when I realized that I could stay at the same place that the filming crew did? Yeah, I was all packed and ready to go.

Instead of an interstellar transport vessel, I took a bus to Haneda Airport in Tokyo and got on a flight to Dubai. In Dubai I transferred to a flight to Male'. This stupidly named city (yes, with that dangling apostrophe at the end) is the capital of Maldives. Because Maldives is where planet Scarif is at.

At Velana International Airport in Male' I switched from my swanky Emirates ride (free upgrade to business class, ha!) to a domestic flight to a place named Kadhdhoo. Seriously. Kadhdhoo.

This lovely Star-Warish-sounding island is located in Laamu Atoll in Maldives. Because it is in Laamu Atoll where you can find planet Scarif.

Laamu Atoll in Maldives - the location of planet Scarif

The biggest island in Laamu is called Gan. It's connected to Kadhdhoo by a proper paved causeway with street lights and all, built by China as a token of Chinese love and affection for the crystal clear waters of the Maldivian Indian Ocean. Or something like that.

Confusingly, there are three different Maldivian islands called Gan, and in my excitement I almost booked a flight to the wrong one. Fortunately, my guesthouse on the proper Gan sorted the domestic transfers for me and thus spared me a major embarrassment. What can I say? Geography of small island countries was never my strong point.

This is Laamu Atoll with the three shooting locations marked in red for your convenience.

I stayed at Reveries Diving Village and I picked this guesthouse after debating long and hard. Previously I had a different guesthouse in mind, but Reveries won me over with their professionalism and courtesy. And honesty.

How did we live before GoPro?

The other guesthouse, even though they promote and advertise their Star Wars tours very aggressively was less than forthcoming when it came to answering basic questions. Such as "Are there TVs in the rooms?" and "Do you have a diving instructor on staff?" The answers they didn't want to give me were "no" and "no".

Reveries had both. And a giant outdoor screen in the garden, so one night we could eat our dinner outside and enjoy Rogue One under the stars.

Reveries also had one more thing that other guesthouses on Gan didn't. Staff members that actually worked as support on Rogue One.
Their gym was turned into a makeup room during the shooting. Their manager of operations ferried filming crew back and forth between Gan and the shooting locations. And while the stars of the film were accommodated on a luxurious safari boat, the rest of the crew stayed on Gan.

So when these guys greet you at the front desk, you know you are at the right place.

Regardless of what other news and fan outlets say, planet Scarif is actually three different islands in the Laamu Atoll. And regardless of what other news and fan outlets say, Gan is not one of them.
These islands are:
  • Baresdhoo (misspelled as Berasdhoo on Google maps)
  • Holhurahaa (known locally simply as "Huraa", not to be confused with several other islands with the same name), and
  • Kuda Fushi.

Baresdhoo and the island known as Huraa are close enough to Gan that they can be visited in one day. Kuda Fushi is all the way across the atoll.

It takes about 15 minutes from Gan to Baresdhoo by motorboat.

Baresdhoo is a public island, nobody's living there right now. But that will change very soon, as the government has a very ambitious project to turn it into a guesthouse island.
Maldives is known as one of the most expensive travel destinations in the world. Say "Maldives" and people immediately imagine water villas with glass floors and private resorts. And yes, Maldives is all that, and more.

However, in 2009 the government allowed for private citizens to open budget guesthouses on inhabited islands, and the hoi-polloi, like me, could finally travel to paradise as cheaply as possible.
Staying in a guesthouse on an inhabited island (as opposed to a resort on a private island) has its advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that it's cheap. Plus you get to see how average Maldivians live. The main disadvantage is that there is absolutely no alcohol allowed. Sharia law and all that.

So yes... the first guesthouses on Baresdhoo are scheduled to open in 2020. There's also a very ambitious plan to extend the causeway to Baresdhoo, but that all depends on our friendly Chinese road builders and how much they value the everlasting Maldivian friendship.

That means that in 2020 visiting one part of planet Scarif will become very, very easy.

As it is right now, you have to go by boat.

And what was filmed on Baresdhoo?

And this is what it looks like in real life now:

It's the same path:

There were no rebels when we visited. Just an older couple from a nearby island who were collecting coconuts. How anti-climactic.

There are actually two different shooting locations on Baresdhoo. To get to the other one you have to take about a ten minute walk along the beach:

And who doesn't love a lovely beach, right? Right???

The second location is where one of the imperial installations was located:

Sorry, I'm too lazy to search for a proper still from the movie right now. I'll try to add it later.

And that's it for Baresdhoo. It was time to trek back to the boat.

Apparently, visiting the next island during low tide was very important. Soon you'll understand why.

The next island is officially known as Holhurahaa, and unofficially as "Huraa". It's very confusing, because nearly every Maldivian atoll has an island named "Huraa", or some variation thereof. One of these Huraas is a popular guesthouse island famous for great diving. But that's not our "Huraa".

We wanted this "Huraa". No guesthouses and no people there at all:

It takes about 30 minutes by boat from Baresdhoo and the seas can get quite choppy as you have to cross two channels linking the inside of the atoll with the open ocean.

Because we reached this island during low tide, getting to the shore involved a long hike through the lagoon.

What was filmed on this speck of sand?

And this is how it looks a few years later during low tide and from a different angle:

The ocean and the erosion almost ate up the remains of the tree. Next year it will be all gone.

But for now, we can still enjoy the view of a famous dead tree stump in the middle of nowhere.

And that's it for Holhurahaa.

It was back to the boat and off to a picnic on a deserted island. We caught some lunch on the way.

And this concludes part 1 of our visit to planet Scarif.
In part 2 we'll go to Kuda Fushi. That's where all the REAL action was.