Coming to Soneva Fushi in Maldives is like coming home. The map of the island is imprinted in the soles of my feet. It is a flagship project that I worked on years ago and now I visit the island every few months for board meetings and potential new projects. I sometimes pretend that I am bored of coming here but in reality I am super stoked. It is my secret corner where I get to live my dream life.

Friends and familiar faces greet me at the jetty on arrival. The tiredness of the journey somehow melts into the soft white sand. The salty air blends in with the chirping birds – and I know I have returned home! Walking through my villa I feel I have transcended time. The evening sky has never looked so delicious. I sit on the sand outside my villa listening to the waves for what seems like an eternity. And yet I can’t get enough. The ocean possesses great powers to heal all wounds.

The next day passes in a daze – rushed breakfast, Feng Shui project meetings, grabbing quick lunch with friends and trying to cool over salted caramel ice cream in between! Who said work had to be boring?

I finally dip my tired feet into the warm ocean when I am done for the day and try to relax for a bit; but my thoughts are simmering. Slowly as the waves recede, my thoughts are also being washed away.  All I can see is the horizon in the distance and the sky above. Life has melted somewhere in-between the two. It is now time to let go of all the control.

Tonight, is the Asian buffet for all the guests. The open-air restaurant by the beach is filled with many familiar faces. I spot Chris Martin from Coldplay, Jonas brothers are also here. I see Sonam Kapoor in a corner. I see CEO’s and people from the business magazines smoking expensive cigars and guzzling down bottles of old wines. Money can buy you exotic holidays. But if you don’t have anyone to share it with, then what use does this all have? Everyone is here to unwind and live a bit of normal life.

From every angle I feel like a misfit. I come from a middle-class family that went on holidays to see Taj Mahal or visit family in Rajkot or spend few days in Rishikesh. Those journeys normally involved going by second sleeper train or by bus. But all those trips were filled with humor, love and childhood dreams of flying high in the sky. I had no idea back then that places like the Maldives even existed. Definition of luxury was different and having 10 rupees in my wallet made me feel like a princess.

People are dressed in their finest beach wear – lovely colourful kaftans, beaded necklaces, crumpled soft linen shirts with straw hats and bare feet! The dark rough wooden tables are lined with orange and green cushions and set with tall wine glasses and chunky cutlery. Different types of Asian cuisines are set up on both sides on the beach. Smell of coconut curry blends in with the aroma of prawn tempura. I see people digging into the delicious food over cocktails and coconut water. Here, on the white beach I finally see people letting their guard down. There are no more talks of hedge funds or investments. No more worries about buying real estate or looking like a model. All I hear is laughter through the clicking of the cutlery. Delicious food can do wonders for your mood.

I try to remain invisible, wanting to sit by myself away from the crowd and read Murakami’s Kafka on the shore on my kindle. The magical mind-bending novel fits right into my current setting. A friend finds me through the crowd and insists I sit at her table. I am not too enthusiastic, but it would be rude to say no. I proceed to the table, half-heartedly.  I am not in the mood to be socially polite.

To my surprise, her table has interesting mix of people – a Cantonese hedge fund manager from Hong Kong, an elderly Chinese husband and wife couple from Shanghai who are here to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, a Thai architect from Bangkok, an Italian couple who are sky diving instructors from Spain and myself.

As we all make small talk and get to know each other, I start unwinding over my chilled watermelon juice. The hectic day is now slowly melting away among these new set of friends as I relish dim sums, noodles and parathas.  

Soon people start to leave. But I am in no hurry. I decide to stay for a while savoring the taste of the night sky that I normally don’t get to see in Dubai. And finally four of us remain at the dinner table – the Thai architect, The Chinese wife, Cantonese hedge fund manager and myself. It seems like an odd group but we are in sync with each other’s thoughts by now.

We start talking about general things from Prada handbags to Buddhism, from Feng Shui to investments, from building a home to which book to read. We just keep talking; sharing, laughing, and savoring the moment over sugar coated marshmallows that somehow never seem to finish. When we finally look up, the sky is covered in hundreds of tiny sparks and the half moon looks like a white chocolate chip cookie that’s been bitten by my cat.

Something shifts in the energy and we all start sharing intimate things from our past. The conversation is now flowing along with the waves. There is no fear of being judged as we don’t know each other that well. In all likelihood we are never going to meet again. The Thai architect confesses that he became a monk in Cambodia for two years of his life to get away from an abusive girlfriend. I am in disbelief. This man who is wearing a limited-edition Rolex and flew in his private jet was once wearing a maroon robe, had shaved his head and went begging for food. I look at him with new pair of eyes and find that the deep-set lines on his forehead are full of stories of multiple lifetimes.

A dark cloud pass through the elderly Chinese wife as she talks about living with her mother in a village in China. She pauses, breathes in deeply and then confesses that her mother had bound feet and lived with excruciating pain her entire life. She had never seen her mother walk properly. All this was done in the name of beauty. She gently wipes tears that escape her deep-set eyes. 

The Cantonese hedge fund manager who is an Oxford graduate, is casually playing with her dinner napkin toying with the idea of sharing her story. Then she suddenly let’s go of her composure and mentions casually that she walked out of her marriage as her Oxford educated husband had raised his hand on her. She sits quietly and then breaks into a dazzling smile saying she was now free and traveled the world alone.

I share my stories of heartbreak and my father’s death. We all sit still for a while having unloaded our burdens in front of unknown people. Everyone is carrying a cross. Everyone is on a journey.  The gentle breeze carries our secrets to the depths of the ocean and buries it deep within.

I don’t think the four of us will ever forget this night. Each one with our own life story, our unique journey – and yet we found each there on a crowded buffet night on the same table, on this lovely island under the night sky. What were the odds of four of us ever meeting in the first place?

This is the beauty of traveling. You meet complete strangers in unknown places. You then become part of their stories while they also become part of yours.

Maldives is magical and so is life!

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Shivani Adalja

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