Piece of Pacific paradise: Exploring magnificant Maldives
Piece of Pacific paradise: Exploring magnificant Maldives
Thinking of escaping to a tropical island paradise? Well, don’t think too long if you have the Maldives Islands in mind. Located in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka, they’re slated to be swallowed up in 20-30 years owing to rising sea levels courtesy of global warming. (Their highest natural elevations above sea level rise a little more than the height of your average pro basketball player.)
My wife and I decided to check out the islands for a week in December 2019 after the rainy season (June-July), but also well into the pricey high season (October-year’s end). Suggestion: Go before then; prices start shooting up fast. Overall, it’s not an expensive place to visit, but it’s not cheap either. Best to go by group tour or, if going solo, book on-line in advance for the best deals. (“Never Ending Footsteps” is a great informative on-line source). Just don’t taxi into Velana International Airport and expect to wing it. You’ll pay through your nose.
The country is comprised of just under 1,200 islands or atolls (island clusters), with only about 200 inhabited. Total population: 450,000 with Male (capital city and central hub) home to about 150,000. Weather is warm, yet never scorching hot (25-30 degrees C. year-round), so weather-wise anytime is good other than the rainy season. What follows (below) is that of a budget-minded itinerary; no luxury resort settings detailed here.
We spent most of our time in Hulhumale, a man-made island northeast of Male and adjoined by the recently constructed Chinese-Maldives Friendship Bridge. (Chinese investment is pronounced in the country.) Our hotel manager and tour guide (“Shattu”), who spoke excellent English (decent English is widely spoken), picked us up late at night at the airport and drove us for about 20 minutes to his hotel on the east side of the island, saving us about 40 rufiyaa: their national currency. (About 15 rufiyaa = $1. Change currency while at the airport; currency exchange elsewhere can be inconvenient.) We spent about $130/day; rooms were small, though accommodations adequate. Our TV never worked (we mainly used the room only to sleep), but at least the A/C did. Hulhumale is a great place to stay: close to Male, yet far enough away from its noise and congestion. Just remember to stay on the eastern side; that’s where the great pearly-white beaches are, some of the finest in the world.
Hospitality service is slow throughout the islands. By the end of the following day, my wife was remarking, “You have to get used to the slow customer service. Everywhere. Reminds me of life in the Philippines.” Expect to s-l-o-w your inner clock while waiting on food, drink, etc., in commercial establishments. Must be that universal tropical island culture. Everywhere.
First off, the Maldives has been a Muslim country since 1193, although a liberal one. Second off, remember that, except for restaurants, everything closes down on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Conservative dress codes, especially on beaches, are strictly enforced. Exceptions are only made for foreign tourists at the luxury resorts’ so-called “bikini beaches.” There, women are allowed to swim scantily dressed--just not too scantily. Topless bathing, of course, is strictly prohibited. Elsewhere, beach dress-code signs are posted, many only in English. (Maldivians don’t have to be reminded.) Men are also advised to wear T-shirts.
Everywhere expect to see myriad cats, mostly strays. Though always hungry, most look well-fed; locals and tourists alike toss them scraps. But dogs? Being a Muslim country, we never saw a single one. An occasional chicken with her chicks can be spotted strutting around, especially in vacant lots undergoing construction. Lots under construction are omnipresent, and often overflow with leftover debris, in effect becoming trash dumps and havens for these meandering cats and chicks. Don’t be surprised to find loads of litter dotting the landscape in these abandoned lots alongside pristine guesthouses. You’ll get used to it.
Time in the capital
Next up: The capital, Male. It has the greatest concentration of diverse tourist attractions, a half-dozen total. Something suitable for everybody. You can take them all in within a half-day. Male is accessible by bus, taxi, or ferry. Supposedly there are private car rental agencies as well, though we didn’t see any. Also, motorized scooters are rentable at diverse prices ($20/day), but, driving is far too dangerous. Skip them; go by bus, taxi, ferry, or foot. Once you get to central Male, you’ll think you’re trapped inside a Mad Max movie. Streets explode with racing, gas-belching scooters. Utter anarchy. Miracle upon miracle riders are not sent to the hospital—or morgue—in droves. Pedestrians scurry across streets at their own peril.
Its name may tire the tongue, yet it’s an easy walk to the Masjid-Al Sultan Muhammad Thakurufaanu Al-Auzam and Islamic Centre (note the influence of British spelling), also known simply as Grand Friday Mosque. It’s probably the most imposing building in the country, and considered one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, noted for its humble yet arrestingly white majestic façade. Shattu led my wife and me over to the front entrance. Two Muslim men, a custodian and a visiting Sri Lankan Shattu later told us, intercepted our advance. The two argued heatedly whether to allow me, a non-Muslim man, permission to enter shoeless inside the chamber. (Being a woman, my wife had already been summarily ejected.) Shattu tried to intervene. To defuse the debate I declined to enter.
There are other, though not all that many, sights to take in around central Male. We would return the next day. Before heading back to the hotel, the three of us decided to try out one of the many splendid cafes (alcohol is not served: Muslim country, remember?) to scarf down one of the islands’ unique tropical drinks, whose name escapes me. Doesn’t matter. Menus are replete with drinks and accompanying colorful photos; be adventurous and order. Plenty of oddball fruity concoctions to wolf down as well like “Seagull Hut” (no kidding): vanilla ice cream laden with choco-chips, hazelnuts, pistachios, chopped chocolate and pineapple slices topped off with a fat maraschino cherry. All for only 120 rufiyaa.
Back in Hulhumale there were several excellent Indian and Pakistani restaurants near the hotel. We dined at the nearest. Maldives is host to especially good Indian and Pakistani eateries; they’re reported to be among the finest found anywhere, given their cost. Later, I went by myself for a beat-down: a 60-minute Thai massage for $36, plus token tip. The wife stayed behind. Bruises easily. Ticklish, too.
Next morning I was up early to jog the beach in a drizzle and headwind. Inclement weather canceled our submarine tour in Male yet again. Though the wet season may be long over, expect rain anytime. But don’t worry: Weather can change in a Maldives minute, and often does. The tour would wait. An eatery across the street served the traditional Maldivian breakfast of mas huni: chopped tuna with grated coconut, onions, and chili. It has a near-unique flavor, anything but typical. It’s best eaten with baked roshi bread and plenty of black pepper, and is often served with sweet hot tea. I chose coffee. Try it.
Visiting a museum
Next stop: central Male. Again. This time the wife and I hopped on a local bus to the Male Bus Station. Buses are clean, convenient, and cheap. Fare was only 20 rufiyaa, about $1.25. Heads-up: Pay attention to your surroundings in public transportation hubs. I almost mistook the men’s central prayer room for the men’s public latrine. The signs can easily be misidentified, especially when you’re inattentive and in a hurry.
We walked to the two-story National Museum. Admission: 100 rufiyaa/adult. Outside is a commemorative plaque, again a testimony to China’s growing influence in the country: “This Building was donated by the People’s Republic of China to the People of the Republic of Maldives.” Inside there’s an interesting and colorful stamp collection on the first floor complete with a World Heritage five-minute video exhibiting the history of Maldives’ stamps.
A don’t-miss. It takes only 45-50 minutes to see the entire museum, but get there early; it closes by 4 pm. Also included is a section devoted to the history of the Maldivian police dating to their inception (1933). I sought to make a joke to a tough-looking male attendant that judging from the photos of a few of the past police commissioners they looked like street criminals themselves. He cracked a wan smile. At least he had a sense of humor. It was a joke I should’ve kept to myself. Upstairs the entire second floor is devoted to miscellaneous historical artifacts, particularly those pertaining to the Maldives’ seafaring culture. It was closing time. We headed outside for the closest café ….
While polishing off another oddball tropical dessert, one of many torrential downpours hit. Expect to get soused and doused while visiting the Maldives at any time. After ordering an extra coffee as an excuse to loiter, we finally went outside when the rain subsided and made a beeline for the nearest supermarket to load up on snacks to munch on back at the hotel. (Food is not cheap here). Later, trying to flag down a taxi for Hulhumale was an ordeal. Word of Advice: Taxis are difficult to find in Male, particularly when people get off work. Allot yourself extra time. A lot of extra time.
More rain welcomed us early Friday morning. Everything was closed, so Shattu drove us to Male ferry terminal to explore nearby island of Villingili. Cost: 6.5 rufiyaa (for two), or about $.25 per rider, not bad for a one-way, 10-minute choppy ride. Within 10 minutes of arrival, my wife, a kind-hearted soul, spied a few street cats, and took out a snack from my pack to feed them. One of the bigger, greedier cats, in an attempt to swipe away food from another, swiped my wife’s finger instead. A local police car happened to be going by; we got free taxi service to Villimale Hospital. After a freshly applied dressing in the emergency room, we were on our way after I had coughed up 200 rufiyaa for “Casualty 41.” As I went outside, I got hit with another 20 rufiyaa for the dressing for 220 rufiyaa (total) or about $15.
Hammocks and (no) tattoos
While strolling the islands, you’ll see the famous weird-looking Maldivian hammock. Like the stray cats, they’re everywhere. Goofy-looking contraptions (netting sewed or tied around steely frames), they are, nevertheless, comfortable. Some are perched on overhead branches; others are set up on the ground. Try them. You’ll be lulled to sleep and snoring like a sailor in no time. Yet there’s one thing you won’t find on the beaches, at least not among the locals: tattoos. For most Muslims they’re haram (Arabic word for “forbidden,” and hence against Islamic principles). As stated earlier, the Maldives may be liberal, but it’s still officially an Islamic republic. Later, we made our way to a beach, never far away, and were greeted by a family that offered us roasted marshmallows cooked over a pit of burning coconut shells. Delicious. Soon it was time to ferry back to Male and then taxi to our hotel.
The next morning it was raining, though our submarine tour was still on. Our predesignated pick-up guide was nowhere to be seen come our mutually agreed-upon pick-up time to the submarine pier in Male. Word of caution: As happened so manty times, the locals often don’t follow through on their promises. We called a pick-up taxi instead and, though the driver said he knew our destination, took us to the international airport instead, result of a silly misunderstanding between him and one of our hotel employees. Ultimately it didn’t matter: The sub tour had just been canceled again because of the weather. Ah, stuck again—this time at the airport where we hung out to do essentially nothing before grabbing a taxi back to Hulhumale to stop by the island’s sole movie theater only to discover there was really nothing for us to see. We then meandered around in the rain, soon-to-be drizzle, stopping by a supermarket to buy unnecessary odds and ends, and made our way back to the hotel where I drank hot tea and my wife dressed for the beach. She took a dip, then, protected by an oversized umbrella, we both napped under a gentle drizzle before returning to the hotel restaurant for another delicious spicy tandoori chicken pizza and relaxation. Our room TV still wasn’t fixed, and would remain that way for the remainder of the trip. I went out by myself to get beat up again at the local Thai massage parlor. Even on a tropical island paradise every day can’t be all that exciting.
On our last day, we woke up to sunshine (finally), and were soon on our way to the long-awaited submarine tour in Male. A 20-minute boat ride takes you out to the mini-sub floating a few kilometers from shore. Price: $95/adult. Submersion lasts about 45 minutes, and descent is down to 115 feet, showcasing behind thick glass a panoramic view of swarms of multicolored fishes and—surprise—an underwater diver who pops up right in front of your glass window. The sub, no more than six feet high inside, makes for a tight, but manageable, seating arrangement. Considering the short time allotted, it’s a rather expensive ride, but worth it.
Afterward we walked to a café in downtown Male for drinks, then taxied back to the hotel for a quick snooze and to hit the beach for a final jog, swim, and last-minute elusive sunshine. Dinner was at the hotel, and I had a one-for-the-road beat-down again at the Thai parlor.
Our bags already packed, Shattu soon drove us to the airport. We got out at the terminal entrance. Though a Muslim, he wasn’t shy about hugging my better half–and giving me a hug as well. It would be a fitting farewell to time spent in the Maldives: the Indian Ocean’s tropical island escape.
–Ron Roman has taught English and the humanities for the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC – Asia) all over the Pacific until the COVID-19 crisis earlier last year. His thriller novel “Of Ashes and Dust” is scheduled for release in the fall of 2022 by Addison & Highsmith.
The Princess docked in Male Harbor is ready to ferry passengers to submarine tours.
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