An aquarium without glass

March 19, 2023

Discovering bliss in the waters of the Maldives

An aquarium without glass


 familiar feeling of trepidation crept up my spine soon after I boarded the flight from Dubai to Malé and caught sight of the overhead screen monitor. Perspiration clung to my forehead as I realised that we would be flying over the ocean.

An eerie stillness permeated through the cabin and threatened to assail me. The plane was still on the tarmac, so it wasn’t too late for me to leap out of my aisle seat and flee into the relative comfort of the departure lounge I’d left a few minutes ago. Just as I was about to rise from my seat, a sea of passengers trailed into the cabin and blocked my view of the nearest exit. As they noisily tossed their luggage into the overhead bin, the cabin transformed into an uneasy bubble of frenetic activity, making it difficult for me to enact my plan for a swift escape. I buried myself in a crumpled, flimsy blanket, closed my eyes and muttered a frantic prayer.

When the plane taxied along the runway, it dawned on me that I was either the bravest person in the world or the stupidest. My aerophobia was a spectre I’d found increasingly difficult to exorcise. Yet, I had agreed to board three flights to go for a family trip to a sunny island in the Maldives. I’d spent the first flight from Karachi to Dubai in the company of a book. Even though we’d encountered the occasional air pocket and had even flown over an ocean, the flight had a warm familiarity to it as I’d travelled along the same route numerous times over the decades.

Once the plane took off for Malé, I craved the distinct familiarity of the previous flight I’d taken. Never before I had sought comfort in the thick ticking of my heart. In those fraught moments when danger seemed imminent, my heartbeat was the only reminder that I hadn’t been devoured by the ocean.

As the plane settled into a comfortable rhythm and I regained my composure, I realised the sheer absurdity of my situation. A vacation should ideally offer a fleeting respite from a hectic routine. Fuelled by the spirit of rejuvenation, a holiday should be an opportunity to seek a much-desired convalescence. However, my vacation had brought me at a close proximity to my fears. During that four-hour journey, I wasn’t just confronting my fear of flying but was also cognisant of the alarming possibility that the plane would descend into the dark depths of the ocean. Ironically, I was on my way to an archipelagic state where the ocean was an unmistakable feature of the topography.

“What business do I have going to a land surrounded by the ocean?” I scribbled into a notebook. “Don’t I get enough of the sea in Karachi?”

The second question exerted a magnetic field, drawing other concerns and curiosities about my relationship with the sea into it. It soon occurred to me that the sea isn’t a novelty for me. My house in Karachi is situated a few minutes away from the Arabian Sea. During my childhood, I could catch a glimpse of the sea from the window of my room. This was long before new houses were built on empty tracts of land. Even so, I’ve treated the sea as one would an old neighbour, with a cordiality that accrues from a lifelong familiarity. At times, the sea becomes an unimpressive landmark whose existence I’ve grown indifferent to. For years, it has served as the backdrop for my visits to the beach but has seldom become the centrepiece of my imagination. Immersed in the chaos of my urban existence, I’ve either forgotten about its existence or perceived it as a casual onlooker or an unwitting witness to my hectic life. Quite simply, the sea is a blue expanse whose whispers swirl through the tangy Karachi air. However, I’ve rarely deigned to listen closely and hear what it has to say.

An aquarium without glass

On the third day, I decided against sitting on the balcony as an angry-looking seagull had already taken my seat. I took it as a sign that the sea didn’t take kindly to guests who felt they could outstay their welcome.
An aquarium without glass

These thoughts invaded my mind as my plane landed in Malé and I took the connecting flight that finally brought me to the Sun Island Resort and Spa in the Maldives. I eventually shelved them as I settled into the beachfront villa on the island.

During our five-day trip, we planned to spend two days at the beachfront villas, which were located at a comfortable distance from the ocean. For the next three days, we’d move to the water villas that had been constructed on an elevated deck connected to the island through a wooden jetty.

As I walked along the shore, I noticed the crowded jetty that led to the sea-facing villas and instantly deemed it forbidden territory. Instead, I turned my gaze towards the glittering seascape. The sun danced in the sky – a welcome reminder that I’d been spared the treachery of Karachi’s harsh winters. I took a photograph of the view and zoomed in to inspect it as if to touch the water and skyline that were beyond my reach. Oddly enough, the sapphire waters and the orange glow that surrounded it didn’t strike me as anything remotely different from what I’d seen on those rare Karachi evenings when I’d walked along the shore.

I craned my neck to face the jetty and captured as many water villas I could on my phone screen. I was convinced that a quick walk along the jetty would offer the thrill of a fresh discovery, but I wasn’t prepared to explore the deck – not yet. It steadily dawned on me that my reservations were inextricably linked to my perception of the sea as both a muse and a menace. While I’ve always winced at the tormenting clichés of the sea as a thing of beauty, I’ve remained painfully aware of the ferocity with which the waves crash into the shore. In my mind, I’ve viewed the sea as an entity that is serene yet sinister; a neighbour who possesses the qualities of an adversary. As I peered at the jetty, I decided to take another kind of vacation that would help me escape these senseless binaries of admiration and fear.

Over the next few days, I ventured out into the sea with an alacrity that I hadn’t hitherto possessed. I stood waist-deep in the ocean for the first time and didn’t frantically run out of the water when I saw a shark trailing menacingly in the distance. I would often gleefully gaze at the water below me, as though I looking into an aquarium without glass, and gasp with delight upon seeing the occasional orange fish.

An aquarium without glass

When we moved to the water villas, I felt as though I was living in a colony at sea. The three days we spent in our villas required a different kind of education. The wooden jetty had no parapet. As a result, I remained anxious that an errant wind would wheel my niece’s pram into the ocean if it was left unsupervised. My nephews, too, were instructed to hold our hands at all times while we walked on the jetty.

Our villas had small balconies that gave us a splendid view of a serene ocean and the sky splattered with the calligraphy of clouds. I sat on the balcony with a book and watched for hours as the blue-green water performed a quiet, subliminal dance. On the third day, I decided against sitting on the balcony as an angry-looking seagull had already taken my seat. I took it as a sign that the sea didn’t take kindly to guests who felt they could outstay their welcome. The sea, too, is entitled to mood swings and privacy.

It’s been almost three months since I returned to Karachi. I seem to have lost my enchantment with, and fearful veneration of, the sea. I have yet to venture out to the beach. For now, it seems my preoccupation with the ocean was a mere holiday fantasy.

The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

An aquarium without glass