Just the Facts
You may have friends who have visited--or desperately want to visit--the slowly disappearing 12,000-island nation of the Maldives. How can 12,000 islands disappear, you ask? Great question. The highest point in the entire country is 14 feet above sea level and, “sea level” being more of an average than a set height in this age of global warming, it seems incredibly likely that the generations of Maldivians to come may not remember their original homeland, seeing as the government has recently bought up land in India to indefinitely relocate the nation of 430,000, should their twenty-two atolls flood permanently.
Tourists to the Maldives generally book stays at all-inclusive island resorts with food and alcohol, snorkeling and diving. It likely does not even need to be said, but this is not the “real Maldives.” According to federal law, four of my absolute favorite things are banned: booze, bibles, porn, and pork. If you haven’t guessed yet, let me be the one to tell you that this island paradise is a strictly Muslim country. This excites me more than the beaches, though I can’t wait to get some sun and sand then sprawl out with a cold non-alcoholic juice drink.
That’s right, I intend to avoid the resort islands like the plague. I owe it to you, dearest reader, to avoid wasting time and money on Club Med and the like, and explore Maldives for what it truly is: a beautiful Muslim nation with rich culture, incredible food, and unique tourist opportunities outside the myriad resorts. Let us go and make our visit.
Air, Land, and Sea
After a night sleeping in Kochi airport in Kerala, India, my father and I take a short flight into Male. That is, we take a flight into Hulhule, an island composed of a runway and airport terminal, sandwiched between Male and another mainly residential island. The flight demographics are mostly people headed to private islands, clad in bathing suits and sun hats. As we pass immigration and the arrival hall, sun hats disappear, and hijaabs become abundant as the tourists flee on private charters to their resorts. We have arrived.
The next step is to take the Male ferry, which runs us about one U.S. dollar in local currency. The two-minute cruise through crystal-clear waters minimizes sweat with an island wind. The long, skinny ferry is nearly full of locals who just got off their shifts at the airport and are heading home. When we touch down in the northwest corner of the island of Male, we realize we will have to walk the entire distance of the island to get to our hotel. It remains hot and my dad is looking sweaty and tired, but Male is hardly a mile at each end, so we have confidence we can survive the heat and get a better idea of Maldivian, or “Dhivehi”, daily life in the process. Strolling along the mile-long stretch of docks and ferries, we witness food and goods being transferred to the capital in real time from the hundreds of skiffs at the northern shore. I also notice that there are an incredible number of hardware stores, almost one on every block, likely due to the endless construction that is being done on this densely-populated island and on the thousands of boats that service it. Hardly any space is wasted, and cars are rare. Most people ride humming motorcycles, behind which scarves flap in the wind. After drifting through a local fruit market, we arrive at acclaimed breakfast spot Jazz Cafe where we order Dhivehi specialty mas huni, made from local tuna, coconut, and dried spicy chilis. We are also given circular tortilla-like roshi with eggs. Without a doubt, it is one of the best breakfasts I have eaten since the beginning of my travels this summer, and a recipe I plan to bring home with me.
After breakfast, we walk the remaining distance to our capsule hotel. This is the first time I get to sleep inside one, and I cannot wait to get a private room, even if it’s barely the size of a coffin. We are a few hours shy of check-in, so we stow our bags in vacant lockers and change into our bathing suits. It is time to visit the beach, though a quick Google search reveals that Male’s public beach is on the other end of the island, from whence we just walked. However, we find that another boat terminal, one much closer to our ‘nap’sules, operates regular ferries to nearby Villingili island. I want to see as much of the country as I can, so we hop on the next available boat.
Hardly two hundred people inhabit Villingili, but all the necessities are there. Twenty minutes’ walk reveals a new mosque, a couple of general stores, an ice cream shop, and a couple of fishing and diving outfits for the scarce tourists who find themselves in Male pursuing an underwater adventure. We came for the beach, but we buy a couple cups of ice cream before submerging ourselves in the crystal blue waters a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal. When we fear we are burning, we recoil into the shadows of a restaurant that caters to the ferry crowd, ordering juice cocktails and watching ferry after ferry come and go. Check-in doesn’t start for another hour… time to relax.
Time to Leave the Napsule… If You Dare
A catch-up siesta the day after an all-night travel binge is likely one of the great pleasures of the road. In my spaceship pod I press buttons trying to cool the box down, but the temperature on the hi-tech display keeps rising into the thirties. That’s centigrade, mind you. I only cool the white plastic and stainless steel casket by opening the hatch slightly. The room lets in cool air despite the inevitable Atlantis steaming outside.
We don’t know it yet, but we will spend this only Malean night circumnavigating the island, first taking the northern avenue to the artificial beach on the east coast, where families bob under football stadium lights. Hijaabi moms toss volleyballs to kids like some wholesome advertisement for making your serotonin-addled kids spend quality time with you and less time playing video games. It is night, everyone is there, and yet the night is tranquil. Either no one believes this country’s drowning, or they chose not to think about it. There is hope. There is a future. It just might not be here.
Tropical sweat and another 90-degree sector of hiking pushes us into an empty pizza house across the street from a mosque in the middle of the evening adhan. A few people shuffle out for a quick prayer, but we help ourselves to drinks in the fridge while we wait for the restaurant to be staffed to full capacity again. We down our drinks and grab the check before returning to our sleep pods.
Male to Hulhumale
Well-rested, it is time to get the most out of this nation’s capital before beginning our journey to the airport. We start our morning at a six-dollar all-you can eat buffet featuring local fruits, omelettes, and pastries, though I mostly just stuff myself with more mas huni. Next, we venture to the National Museum of the Maldives, which far exceeds expectations. As a chronic sufferer of museum fatigue, there are truly very few museums on this earth that I would recommend, and much fewer that I would recommend visitors explore in their entirety. The Maldivian National Museum, though far from comprehensive, weaves together four or five somewhat unrelated exhibits that capture insights into Maldivian history, but also into customs, language, policing practices, and general maritime knowledge. In two densely-packed exhibition floors, I learn about the Dhivehi alphabet (and it’s relation to Arabic), see the full skeleton of a particular type of whale that has never been seen alive, and view an artfully-crafted sculpture depicting the precise moment after a bomb had been detonated in a Male park in 2007. The sheer scope of what the museum covers is beyond impressive, given the museum’s size, and in an extremely rewarding way feels as though the space is being curated by several different people all with their own separate expertise and area of interest.
Next, we stop by the Maldivian president’s gingerbread house of a place and visit the small national library before catching a ferry to Hulhumale. Much less densely populated than the capital, this is where many of the workers live as several highrises, as well as several more under construction, support the largely non-Maldivian tourism sector. We find it hard to believe that this country, set to be underwater, is still building new apartments and trying to get tourists to visit. “Perhaps this is an exit strategy,” I wonder. I imagine the nation knows that their exodus to India will put an end to tourism, at least on the scale they have now, so by raising as much capital as they can, Maldivians will be able to invest in new industries and on constructing their new country across the Laccadive Sea.
Hulhumale, despite being residential, is lined with miles of vacant beach just beyond an eight-foot sea wall. My dad and I float until we feel our skin reddening like steamed crustaceans, then we find a cafe in which to score mid-afternoon “short eats,” the local name for snacks. There, I also use the toilet hose to wash off my sandy feet, and use the WiFi to catch up on blogging. Before our late flight to Sri Lanka, we pop into a tandoori restaurant serving up everything from stir fry to pizza to Indian food. Our American stomachs combined with our exploratory sensibilities form a compromise and we order the tandoori chicken pizza. It comes late, to the point that we are biting our nails out of the anxiety of not making our flight, and also for the potential nutritional value inherent to keratin and cuticles. The pizza finally arrives, and we eat the entire thing despite the lack of flavor. I pay quickly and we head to the bus stop to catch the airport shuttle. We miss the first, but thankfully they run every thirty minutes, 24/7, except for a 1-hour prayer-break on Fridays. As I wait, I wonder if the guy who works the hour-shorter shift on Fridays feels he gets stiffed an extra hour of pay, or rejoices at being able to get out of work early to go to the mosque.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.