In May and June 2018, my partner and I went on a ‘Yoga Trade’ as a surf guide / yoga instructor duo to the island of Himmafushi in the Maldives. A dream-like place of wonder where the waves peel perfectly off a right-hand reef break above crystalline seas teeming with life, just steps from shore. Where guests travel across the world to dive with giant manta rays and black-tip sharks. And where Islamic tradition is shrouded in a thick cultural barrier, virtually inaccessible to a Western-bred feminist like me.
It was a world of paradox I found myself slipping serendipitously into. Where I’d begrudging cover my arms, chest and legs to brave the 200-meter walk – barefoot above soft, crushed-coral white sand – to the locally owned mini-mart for a sweet mid-afternoon snack. Only an hour or so before hopping off the boat in my teeny bikini, scoring some of the best waves of my 12-year surfing life, nearly naked to the sky; no qualms, no questions.
Where foreign visitors can shed their sarongs on a patch of sand designated ‘Bikini Beach’ and can only access alcohol aboard boats with liquor permits or resorts on other islands with special tourism licenses. Where most men would not shake my hand and young local girls would sneak over to our pool and dare a dip in their long pants and long sleeves, before their dad showed up, both timid and angry. Where the local surfer boys reminded one another not to hit on me because I was already someone else’s property.
And where I’d lead the guests at our adopted surf and yoga villa in a guttural round of Sanskrit mantra, just as the sunset prayer began to bellow from the speakers of the mosque. When time stood still in an incommensurable reverence of difference, across cultural lines, spiritual constructs, sun-kissed skin and silken shroud. Despite the distinction in our choice of song, I loved those impeccable moments of simultaneous prayer, mingling among the seaward breeze, mantra colliding with Quran in an otherwise impossible skyspace where I imagined the spectrum of god(s) and goddess(es) smiling joyfully from the heavens, shaking their heads at the perfect conundrum that was my task as yoga teacher and US-born, Costa Rican-bred surfer girl stuck smack-dab in the middle of an Islamic island nation, standing somehow steadfast in her integrity at the heart of the Indian Ocean.
And I’ll be honest – I struggled, most days, with how to be woman in that magical island world.
I mean, look. I’m a Western-born Jewish white girl, freedom-loving feminist, practically sensitive to cultural nuance, yet unabashedly thin-skinned beneath the blazing sun of gender inequality, repression, and injustice – anytime, anywhere, and however veiled by the social dictates accepted by most, even when they’re socio-historically determined by only men and institutionalized in religion and other forms of under-the-radar patriarchy. Add in my 16 years of yoga practice and deep regard for the yogic traditions, and you’d think it was a miracle I didn’t collapse into a mid-life identity crisis right there on the beach, 11,000 miles from my home.
Most of the time, despite myself, when I walked the white-sandy streets of town, I chose to follow the rules, keep a low profile, hide my skin in earth-length skirts and long sleeves, out of respect for a people I knew nothing about in a place I was only passing through. That whole ‘when in Rome’ thing. And truly, I was glad, and even honored, to do it – like an (uninvited) guest in some else’s grandmother’s home.
In reflection, there are parts of that experience I find beautiful, and even empowering. I appreciated that men didn’t ogle or eye-fuck or cat-call at will. A far cry from the soul-crippling streets I frequent in Central America. And I liked that the women would say hi to me when I took their customs seriously. I acknowledge the purity in human interaction where booze and drugs and boobs and butts are not precursors for self-expression or casual conversation. And I liked that both men and women looked me in the eye without the underlying misogynistic pretext of competition, domination or sexual objectification.
But I’ll be real in admitting that wearing long sleeves and long skirts in that heat was a hassle, and I chose to stay inside the villa bubble in my booty shorts on more than one occasion, rather than suit up at noon and sweat my skin off just to feel a little bit free from too many chastising eyes on me. And that didn’t feel empowering at all. In fact, it felt a little like prison in my skin.
In the beautifully sticky, blessedly uncomfortable space I lived for two months in the Maldives between cultural respect and my personal brand of feminist freedom, I found an everyday sense of solace, and soul-felt gratitude, in my home-away-from-home, the sea. Where I could surf as naked to the sky as I wished to be. Not because I wanted to feel sexy, but because – like it or not – my skin against the breeze is my definition of free.
(Cover photo by Lila Koan. Story photos by Pedro Uribe.)
Join Tara for Immersion 2019: Surf + Yoga + Writing Retreat for Women this March in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, ideal for aspiring writers ready to share your stories with the world; and at Yoga Trade’s Deep Ecology of Wellness in April, where she will be offering workshops on sustainable yoga travel and journaling as a practice of personal transformation.
Immersion retreat link: www.tarantulasurf.com/surf-trips-retreats