And that was: Would I feel absolutely stupid and awkward, going to the Maldives, but not on honeymoon?? You know, the way some people look at you with pity or incredulity when you go to cafes and concerts by yourself – except times 1000 (you ladies know what I’m talking about! solitude discrimination is real).
But there were whale sharks to be seen. So I resolved to suck it up. Besides, it’s not like I’m not used by now to people being inexplicably not ok with you having a perfectly good time on your own (and strangely, not doing anything constructive about it either).
And yes, I did feel a bit self-conscious on the flight in half-hippy casual (if vagabond chic still counts as casual). Only too aware of the happy couples in fashionable vacation wear (they’re on honeymoon in the Maldives, enough said).
But, once I got to Malé for my pre-project layover, the feeling vanished.
Because clearly, where Maldivians actually live their daily lives, they can’t all be on honeymoon.
They speak Dhivehi here
Since I came to the Maldives in ignorance, it never occurred to me to wonder what language Maldivians speak. I suppose I took it for granted that they would have their own. It’s only that I didn’t know what it was.
But yes, Maldivians have their own language, called Dhivehi. From the few words I asked about (in hindsight unhelpfully revolving around marine animals), the language has a floaty, airy sound to it. The name of their currency, the ruffiyah, seemed to me to capture the influence of the two regions in closest proximity to the archipelago – the Indian subcontinent, and the Arabian peninsula.
What did surprise me, however, was that Maldivians have their own script. For some reason it never occurred to me at all to consider this possibility. I didn’t even realise I assumed certain things, until I saw the script. But when I saw the writings on a banner, it all became apparent to me. I suddenly realised I had ignorantly assumed that Maldivians might use either some version of Indian script, or perhaps Arabic.
It was a most wonderful feeling.
To be honest, I don’t usually notice food very much when I’m travelling. And since they are Muslim in the Maldives, I didn’t have to pay very much attention about food. But I remember a few things from the Maldives, probably because it was my first time going to an unfamiliar country sort of by myself.
Unsurprisingly, Maldivian food revolves around seafood. They pair it with rice and Indian style flat bread, but obviously these carbs are imported.
There is very little land for farming on the atolls. Even vegetables cannot be grown in abundance, and certainly leafy greens are a luxury. On Dhigurah, the school has a hydroponics project to grow them for the village.
I tried a soup-based Maldivian tuna and vegetable dish, which I liked very much. And I quite liked the slightly sour shredded fish, which seems to be a breakfast thing. I remember thinking the flavours of Maldivian food are reminiscent of the Philippines – tangy and salty.
The Maldivians eat coconut, sliced raw, as a snack. We don’t really do this in Malaysia, although coconut is also very important to our cuisine. I had them on the dhoni during the whale shark surveys, and grew to like it.
There are basically three options to move about within the Maldives.
- You could fly – which may be best if you’re trying to get to the further atolls.
- The domestic terminal is on the same island as the international airport of Malé. You just walk to the right after exiting the customs area.
- However, while not shabby in the least, Malé airport complex isn’t very large nor the most comfortable to lounge about waiting for connections.
- There’s also the speedboat transfers, which are probably included if you are on a vacation package, or an option you’ll be offered if booking at a local island.
- Depending on your trip, you would either go directly to a counter outside the international airport itself, or take a ferry to Malé (the fare is only about $1) to take the speedboat from one of the piers there.
- (Yes, the actual capital city is on a different island than Malé airport).
- The final option is the public inter atoll ferries. These are larger, slow ferries that run the circuit between the atoll islands in the Maldives. I took one to return to Malé from Dhiffushi (by then I felt more confident being in the Maldives all by myself).
- The plus is that it’s certainly cheaper than the speedboat option (like by 10x or so).
- On these ferries there would mostly be local Maldivians. Although if you find a lone tourist, it’s likely to be an interesting acquaintance to make! And yes, I did!
Malé, the Maldives
My first impression of the capital city of the Maldives was that: if a pirate town somehow flourished into a thriving city, it would look like this.
Now that’s not to imply that Malé is a pirate city in any way. What I mean is, in my imagination of a pirate island town, there are buildings packed close together. There may or may not be a systematically designed road and drainage infrastructure. The fishing village of Perhentian Islands has this semi-built, semi-ramshackle vibe too. But take that, and then upgrade it to taller buildings, way more people, and more modern materials – and that’s what Malé felt like to me.
Malé is so small that you literally can just walk around it to get to its landmarks in a single day, although if you’re tired there is public transport as well.
The nicest part of the city is the area near the Friday mosque, where there’s a very well-finished square. Nearby, closer to the sea shore there is a space where people hang out by a small park. Indeed, considering how small and dense Malé is, I was surprised to find seaside open spaces set aside for the public to have recreation. There were even people skateboarding at a skate park on the other shore at the artificial beach.
But all in all, it isn’t a terribly interesting city to wander through. I could understand why a fellow solo traveller I met on the plane advised me to skip it. And indeed, I did skip it on my second visit to the Maldives.
But that doesn’t mean Malé was not interesting to me.
Any city of a nation that I’m visiting for the first time will come with a host of new impressions of its people that introduce me to how that place is different, and all its own self (or not).
I was struck by the lack of advertising and fashion emphasis there, despite being an otherwise functioning Asian capital city with modern conveniences. How different from Southeast Asia, where it is impossible to escape this!
There was nothing in the shop styles, branding emphasis, advertising, and how the people present themselves that betray an untoward pressure towards beauty and fashion. There was no makeup obsession, no slimming obsession, no beauty and fairness obsession, no ‘beach body’ obsession, and no fashion obsession despite the presence of decent clothing stores. It blew my mind. Someplace that managed to sell stuff, without having to make you feel like you’re not enough.
This is in contrast to the airport shops, though. There, the shops are just as polished as any others I’m more used to seeing. There, the well-groomed sales staff have the familiar bored disdain of the trend aspirant.
But that’s not to say that Maldivians are a tepid people.
The other thing I noticed about Maldivians, is that they are romantic. (This time, I use the term in the sense that most people use it – the flowers and hearts sense). I have been to the Maldives twice. I’ve never been anywhere and noticed as many guys passing by, or in the airports, with bunches of roses they’re clearly bringing home to some lucky girl. And neither occasion was Valentine’s Day.
Not just a meh flower bouquet. Perfect. Roses. Perhaps their country’s undisputed standing as the honeymoon destination rubbed off on the guys. Or perhaps they were already competent at this.
The surprise fraternity between the Maldives and Malaysia
When I came to the Maldives, contrary to my sustainable travel aspirations, I admit I studied very little beforehand about the country, aside from what not to do to screw up MWSRP’s relationship with the villagers. In fact, I only discovered just how many atolls there were to choose from, when I had to decide where to spend my layover days after the project.
In the end, I chose Dhiffushi, but only because it was a reasonably near local island to Malé that wasn’t already fully booked on TripAdvisor. (If you would like to skip that drama and have a shortcut, check out this guide for Maafushi from The Roving Heart: Maldives on a Budget).
But random conversations and encounters during my time there, revealed that Maldivians are actually familiar with Malaysia! Apparently Malaysians and Singaporeans regularly visit Malé for business reasons. Malaysian goods are present in the Maldives, down to the ladder we used to climb back onto the dhoni during the project. Maldivians come to Malaysia to study in our universities, and there are even grants to facilitate this. Some had come to work as well, for a little while.
And they remember their time in Malaysia fondly, eagerly wanting to tell some random Malaysian tourist about the kindness and friendship they had received from common Malaysians.
For some reason in Malaysia, we hardly talk about these friendly people-level ties with nations whose people see the good in ours.
The China-Maldives connection
There was a very prominent construction project near Raalhugandu, where I stayed overnight in Malé. I was disappointed. The name of my hotel suggested a view of the surf, yet there seemed to be no such views. Just of construction hoarding.
I took no further notice of it as I went wandering to see the landmarks and souvenir shops of Malé.
But when I took a boat back to the airport island, it was dark. And from the vantage of the sea I saw in flaming letters what the construction project was. It was a bridge – the “China-Maldives Everlasting Friendship” bridge.
Maldives local islands
These days the Maldives has become a plausible destination for more prosaic, non-life milestone related holidays, because the local islands have begun hosting tourists.
Now, the main difference between this and the more popular image of the Maldives, is that Maldivians themselves live on these islands. So essentially, you are living within the village of that atoll. So, what is that like, and how can you be a good guest?
Village norms – dress
Being Malaysian, I barely feel any difference since we have quite similar norms.
For instance, in Malaysia it would also be perfectly normal to go for a swim in the sea fully clothed. In fact, in many public beaches which are more popular with locals, it would be expected (more as a matter of good form than by rules).
However, if you are coming from outside the region, it may help to consider how small each atoll is.
Try to think of the beaches as the neighbourhood playground, and the village streets as your town’s high street. It should then become easier to see why the locals dress to go there. Even if their entire village does look like a vacation paradise!
Doubtless this will vary from atoll to atoll. I’ve stayed on two local islands – one near Malé, and the other in South Ari.
The Maldives is a Muslim nation, and generally village life is still largely influenced by this. The village will have a mosque, and it is polite not to be noisy outside during worship times (which is soon after the call to prayer). While individual youths – particularly young men working in the tourism sector – might be quite liberal, the remainder of the village is likely to be family-oriented and conservative in their manners, albeit tolerant of guests’ foreign ways.
As with most conservative communities, the better you’re able to assimilate, and the longer you stay, the more likely you would get invited into local, personal experiences.
Music – Bodu beru
The Maldivians have a traditional percussion-based musical dance performance called bodu beru.
On Dhigurah, the village community has its own bodu beru troupe. They would occasionally play at the guesthouses, if there are enough guests to make it worthwhile. When I was there, they decided to hold a dance at TME Retreats, where we were staying.
I hadn’t danced since university, when I was in the navy and dances were somehow part of officers’ training (don’t ask). There wasn’t occasion since, and anyway I am perversely only comfortable enough to be in the mood to dance when the general atmosphere is lucid and fun in a joyous sense.
And bodu beru in a Maldivian village was exactly that. So, for once in a long while, I had the best of times dancing – feet on the sand, and under the twinkling stars – in the Maldives.
Hospitality – The welcome of the yachts
The second time I was in Dhigurah, a group of yachts sailing around the Maldives came to anchor off the island. There was rumour that the village might throw a welcome reception for the sailors, and in a few days the matter was decided.
Almost overnight, Dhigurah organised a reception involving a welcome committee, bodu beru, refreshments, and even a demonstration of local crafts and artisan skills by the women of the village. There was flour-making, and rope-making, and accessories made from woven coconut palm fronds.
Here I received a woven bracelet, and I left behind as a gift to the weaver, a bead necklace of Sarawak from my own nation.
The circumcision hut
When I was in the Maldives the first time, I noticed an open-fronted house, gaily decorated. There was otherwise not an ongoing festival on Dhigurah. Upbeat music seemed to be playing from it – but only from that one house. I wondered at it, but then forgot about it.
Then on Dhiffushi, when I noticed a similar colourful, fairy-lighted hut again, I asked the guesthouse owner when he showed me around the village. He told me culturally it was the time when Maldivian boys of age would be circumcised. The vibrant hut was where they all stay together to recuperate.
Local island sights
The islands in the Maldives are primarily composed of sand.
Neither island that I was in had paved streets, nor did they have need for it. The streets were fairly wide for foot traffic, and were simply packed sand.
These naturally drain well in rainy periods, but there may be spots where it’s mixed with silt or other fine soils, which could get muddy. After a few days in Dhigurah, most of us simply began to go barefoot.
There may be motorised vehicles on the island – typically motorcycles – which would share the streets with the pedestrians and occasional wading bird.
On Dhigurah, I didn’t notice many birds. But there were always bats.
The bats would normally start flying out to feed on insects in the evening. You see them on the wing close to dusk, their silhouette a clear black patch against the equally clear blue sky.
Maldives under the sea
Still, no matter how charming the landward life might be, you really go to the Maldives for the seaward part.
I did more snorkelling than diving in the Maldives, primarily for budget reasons. However, to be perfectly honest, even just snorkelling was quite satisfying.
For example, despite being near to Malé, on Dhiffushi I could see juvenile blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, and eagle rays, literally come to the water’s edge. Dhigurah was not quite like that. Nonetheless, you could see abundant schools of fish streaming from one end of the coral reef to a favoured feeding spot around both islands.
I’m sure it must vary by island. But it does seem that Maldivians in the local island villages do somewhat get their act together and enforce on themselves some kind of fisheries resource management. It wouldn’t be possible to see the abundance, and the fearlessness of the animals to come near the shore, around a seafood-diet island otherwise.
As a Malaysian who has seen a little bit of the challenges of advocating sustainable island resource management, I am impressed by the evidence of their restraint.
On top of that, they guide well, and swim with excellent form whether snorkelling or diving. I watched my snorkel guide intervene when a tourist stood on coral in Dhiffushi. It was not entirely successful, but still it was good to see his firm attempt. It is always difficult for the tourism provider to check his customer.
(By the way, if you are not confident with staying buoyant, just don’t go swimming near coral. Do the right thing, and say, ‘the coral reef is more important than my amusement’.)
The sustainable traveller
I went to the Maldives primarily in a conservation context. Moreover, I intentionally made no specific plans for the non-volunteering time I spent there.
Consequently, I had the time to be curious.
It’s not expensive if the thing is priceless
When you arrive in a resort that had all the expected resort conveniences, food and luxuries of diverse agriculture and manufacture, but you know the entire country is an archipelago of tiny atolls that are little more than sand and (jaw-dropping) sea, you put two and two together.
So I understood straight away, why the Maldives promotes itself as a premium destination, why it’s not a budget holiday destination like much of Asia.
They cannot afford to do that.
Their incredible paradise-vacation vibe is their most valuable national asset, their golden goose. It must pay for nearly everything to lift the people to a higher standard of living. If they ruin it by flooding it with mass tourism and irresponsible visitors, the golden goose is dead.
I’m glad that the Maldives has become more accessible through the option of staying in local islands. But beyond that, I don’t think Maldivians should compromise unless it does not threaten their biggest asset.
And if that means I can’t afford to go, then the sustainability of their future is more important than my holiday.
Warmed by the sun, watered by the rain
On Dhiffushi island, I noticed a solar power installation. So I asked the guesthouse dive master who was showing me around, if it was working well. And it was – supplying a significant proportion of the island’s power needs (I forget exactly how much).
From the way he spoke though, I reckon that this was relatively new, and probably the traditional way to energise the islands is by fossil fuel generators. But if it did take on, it would go a long way to delivering more energy independence to the Maldivian islands.
The Maldives clearly get enough water that the islands are vegetated. But there again, it’s so often sunny. There aren’t rivers or streams, and the atolls are so small that you wouldn’t expect groundwater to be fit for drinking (or could it be?).
Yet, you could see water tanks in the villages, and pumping pipework connections. Short of massive desalination plants (where?), where would the locals get water from? Surely it can’t be piped all the way from India!
So I asked.
The answer was rain. So if you’re vacationing in the Maldives among the villagers, and the skies are a cloudless, spotless (read: rainless) blue – take that as a reminder to conserve water.
Paradise gained, or paradise lost?
The Maldives is certifiably jaw-dropping gorgeous.
But even its paradise beaches cannot escape the global tide of marine plastic debris.
MWSRP itself avoids bottled water on its excursions, but it is otherwise difficult to avoid it in the resort. They simply would not refill a guest’s bottle from the kitchen, and the tap water is too brackish. (At this time, I had not yet been introduced to my now travel-essential Sawyer mini filter – it does wonders for one’s water independence!)
Having come to the Maldives after a marine plastic waste advocacy initiative in the Perhentians, naturally I began to wonder whether there is any recycling in the Maldives, a country that doesn’t even have a convenient mainland to park recycling plants and giant landfills.
On Dhiffushi I got around to asking. And the answer from the dive master was, no. There are no recycling plants in the Maldives. On the islands, if you walk around enough, you’ll note the spots where the rubbish burnings take place.
However, he also told me about government talks with the government of India, hoping to strike a deal for India to take recyclable wastes from the Maldives into its own plants. Hopefully it all pans out.
Sustainable tourism and self-esteem
The Maldives was the first Asian country I visited outside of Southeast Asia, in an ‘independent’ sort of trip. And so the first Asians I met outside of Southeast Asia without the filters of a tour package or business ‘handler’. Their casual self-assurance struck me immediately, the more so when I considered the fact that their country has little more than its tourism offering.
In my decidedly capitalist region, we’re fed with the mantra of development, development, development. That without natural resources (they mean, the kind that you can mine or timber down or fish out), manufacture, financial trade, or something of that sort, a nation has got nothing ‘real’ to be proud of. Is it a coincidence that the character of our region includes insecurity and self-consciousness?
But the Maldives is exactly that – it has ‘nothing’. Even what it does have that is ‘fish-out-able’, isn’t really.
But the people are laidback, friendly, confident, intelligent, and generally articulate. At least the ones with the most interface with outsiders (the ones I could speak to), show the marks of absorbing different ideas, but without really ceasing to be Maldivian either.
That’s how you gestate the truly interesting things. New ideas come in, but the nation retains its independence of mind and identity to choose and design – even argue – future versions of itself. Too often in Asia today, I see a binary split between those who are unable to accept new ideas, and those who give up identity in seeking to be someone else’s clone.
I hope the Maldives’ positioning as the aspirational tourism destination protects a continued ability to keep to this middle space of a truly living identity.