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As romantic as the open air boat ride in the middle of the Indian Ocean sounds, in reality, it gets tough quickly. I got badly sunburned in those twenty minutes and a mild headache throbbed at the back of my skull. The sun bore down on me in a most unkind way and the rays dazzled the ocean into a blinding silver. After the brief initial excitement, the ride seemed endless and only a pair of playful dolphins cheered up the torturous experience. Fenfushi was the chosen local island for my Maldives homestay experience and thankfully it appeared soon enough. The medium sized island peeped from behind the stylish Sun island resort. Only a thin slice of watery turquoise and a deep unbridgable gap separated the two.

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Fenfushi arrived with the common man’s lifestyle.

The gap of the resort life vs Maldives homestay experience

Sun Island is one of the most expensive Maldivian resorts and its customers had money to burn. Fenfushi residents, on the other hand, were fishermen, school teachers, government clerks and hospitality industry workers. While the Sun Island residents woke up to pampered sun swept mornings, Fenfushi inhabitants daily crossed over the small channel to serve their rich neighbours in white-gloved hands. Both the islands in spite of being part of the same Maldivian atoll looked completely different and Fenfushi was a far cry from Sun’s carefully cultivated idyllic charm. My first sight of Fenfushi shocked me speechless and I seriously doubted my idea of the Maldives homestay experience. Was it even worth all the hassle?

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It was a short boat ride from the airport.

The first sight of my Maldives homestay island shocked me

Litter piled along the local island’s fringe and Fenfushi wore a very lived-in look. Pieces of jetsam floated around, fiercely proving the island’s common man’s existence and it was not touristy or postcard pretty Maldives from any angle. I watched it loom larger, slowly breaking my turquoise Maldives homestay dream and my headache seemed to grow stronger by the minute. As I sulked on the boat, nursing the pounding headache and a sinking dread in my heart, a squad of playful dolphins reappeared from nowhere and started swimming alongside. I watched entranced, as they swam, swooped and scattered a million rainbows off their wet backs. Their rainbow spray splashed on my face and I looked into their laughing eyes, while the netted Sun Islanders struggled to follow them through their binoculars. Suddenly, the pleasant reality of my decision dawned upon me and I looked forward to experiencing the unmade face of Maldives.

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This was my first sight of Fenfushi.

The Maldives local life in Fenfushi

The crab filled Fenfushi pier was soft from use and the villagers gawked as I walked towards the inn. Fenfushi was a typical, nondescript village; the kind whose only highlight is its subtlety and complete with wooden swings, boat repairing sheds, sleeping cats and scattered children’ bicycles, it seemed like a slice of rural home in the middle of Indian Ocean. The broad sandy beach was badly strewn with trash and the cleanly swept dirt lanes had freshly fallen over-ripe breadfruit rotting in piles. Fenfushi was overrun with breadfruit trees and their heavily pregnant branches dropped more fruits than coconuts. The swaying silken palms too grew profusely and sweet smelling flowers twined carelessly. It was mid noon, when Moosa welcomed me to the Maldives homestay at Fenfushi and apart from the gawking residents, the island looked deserted and empty. Only the health office and the school were open and my guide pointed out a historic church, which had a 12 years old history. A few shops and restaurants lined the lanes and nearly everything looked happily subdued in afternoon siesta.

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Fenfushi looked inhabited

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and lived-in.

The different experience at the Maldives homestay

It was difficult for me to decide whether I liked Fenfushi or not and the island did not exactly fit as the idyllic tropical paradise. But it was for real and a lot of people had called it home. Generations of Fenfushi residents had lived and died on the island and it was not a fantasy bubble called resorts or packaged holiday, but a stark, unmade face of Maldives. The duality of the system struck me hard and I felt lucky to have experienced Maldives, as a place which the islanders call home. My Maldives homestay, Fenfushi Inn was equally nondescript and it was clean, comfortable with friendly, non-intrusive staff. A small neat garden surrounded the villa and my bedroom had a night jasmine bush growing outside the window. Moosa, who also worked as a caretaker of the inn got my meals cooked by his wife and his young fisherman cousin, Suja was appointed as my guide. It was a perfect setting for an independent traveller, who wanted to rest, relax and enjoy solitude and at half the resort’s price, I found it to be a great deal.

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It was a far cry from the resort world of the Maldives.

Was the Maldives homestay experience worth all the hassles?

After a simple lunch, I rested in the room of my Maldives homestay and ventured out for a walk around the island in the evening. Fenfushi’s centre held a small patch of tangled forest and a circlet of encased beach surrounded the island like an embankment. It was to protect the island from being eaten away by the ocean and once again it struck me with full force, that the Maldives was indeed disappearing fast. While I was always aware of the Maldives’s emergency situation through news articles, coming face to face with its reality was quite unsettling.  Disturbed by the sudden revelation,  I walked deep in my thoughts till the island’s sandy tip dipped into the ocean. Someone had erected a homemade swing on the powdery white sand and I swung happily like a little girl between the blue sky and the green ocean. Perfumed sea breeze tousled my hair, while cuckoos sang riotously as a slow moving sun dipped sensuously into the horizon at my feet.

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An unbridgable gap divided Fenfushi

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With the neighbouring Resort Sun Island.

The problems of the paradise travel destination called the Maldives

Life suddenly simplified itself at that moment and it returned to an earthy and tranquil state. But as they say, some joys are not meant to last and my Maldives homestay dream once again come crashing down to reality. Apart from sinking, Fenfushi (along with rest of Maldives) had a serious litter problem and the trash nearly choked out vegetation and marine life at some spots. Fishing boats hulked on Fenfushi’s beach in different states of repairs and trash floated on the waves. Plastic bags and bottles swirled in the clear water like natural marine life and household waste coloured it with a poisonous inkiness. The Maldives has a rapidly burgeoning toxic waste disposal problem and though an island had been dedicated to treat and recycle the country’s waste, collection and treatment of trash from the far-flung islands continued to be an unsolved issue. Moreover, the limited capacity of the recycling unit did not rectify the situation and this resulted in the uninhabited islands being used as garbage dumps.

The eye-opening reality as experienced during my Maldives homestay

While most of the resort travellers do not even get hints of such troubles in paradise, my Maldives homestay experience burst the bubble open and presented the reality of the life of Maldivians in a very stark way. My first evening on the local island ended quickly and I walked around the entire island before returning to the inn with some water and chocolates. Quiet Moosa’s shy wife served a silent dinner on the little patio and I ate with stars and fireflies as my company. The food was a simple, homemade fare of rice, salad, fish curry with coconut milk and crunchy fried popadums. That night, despite a fatigued body and heavy dinner, sleep was difficult and I found it hard to cope with the realities of a Maldivian life. Till today, I am unsure as to what troubled my mind and I guess it was the duality of the island nation which made me so uneasy.

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Quiet and empty

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With humming local life

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Fenfushi Island

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Was the real Maldives.

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With real blemishes

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And dark sides

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Of the postcard-pretty travel paradise.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE