I had fallen in love with Maldives even before landing into the tiny island nation. Although, Maldives seems to us Indians as just a stone throw away, it had taken a surprisingly tedious flight to reach Male, its capital city. For me, the travel distance had been longer since I had to fly to the southern coastal city of Kochi from Kolkata to proceed towards Maldives and by the time the Spicejet airline flight had landed in Male, my grumpiness had known no bounds. It had not yet been 10 am and I had already spent more than 7 hours cooped up inside airplanes. Transits and terminal changes had made things worse and for a fleeting moment, I had considered getting off at Kochi. The dilemma had continued nagging my sleep deprived brain, when suddenly the turquoise rimmed white sands of Maldivian islands had unfurled below. With their appearance a collective gasp had rung through our airplane and the smallest Asian country had made its presence felt. Maldives is minuscule, both in terms of population and land area and it is also the lowest country on the planet. With its lowest natural highest point being around 2.4 meters, the breathtakingly beautiful dream destination is a fast disappearing nation. It is termed as severely endangered and guidebooks from all over the world, list it among the “Places you should see before they disappear”.
Reports of Maldives sinking have sent environmental alarm bells ringing and scientists from all over the world are greatly concerned of the consequences of this mega ecological disaster. Unfortunately, till now, environmental think tanks have not been able to come up with a very sound solution and the biggest hindrance lies in the geological location of the archipelago nation. Situated on top of a vast submerged mountain range in the Indian Ocean, Maldives is made up of 26 natural atolls. Contrary to their appearance, atolls are not solitary islands and they are in fact giant rings of coral formations which have broken up into countless pieces. Atoll is derived from “atholhu” which is a Dhivehi word (national language of Maldives) and it loosely means lagoon island. The coral reefs which fringe these islands often create shallow lagoons which are excellent for snorkelling, thus rendering them the name atoll. Maldives has been divided into 20 atoll groups for administration purposes and they include both inhabited, uninhabited islands and coral reefs. Out of them, only 10 administrative atoll groups are open for tourism and the most popular atolls are Raa, Baa, Alifu, Vaavu and Kaafu.
TRAVEL TIP – Male is in the center of a cluster of islands and speedboat transfers are the most economical way of traveling to the islands from Male. Sea planes, yachts and domestic flights are also available, but they are quite expensive and are quickly sold out. The local ferries which ply between the islands are very slow (sometimes taking up to 6-8 hours for the far flung ones) and they do not have a fixed daily schedule. They sail from different ferry points in Male and for tourists it is very difficult to locate these embarkation points. The easiest option for a Maldives vacation is to buy an all inclusive holiday package at one of the numerous island resorts. The tour operators and/or the resorts manage everything and they are quite expensive in peak season.
With proper planning, Maldives can also be very easily a DIY project and the itinerary should be planned before landing into Male. Having a speed boat transfer to the selected island, confirmed for the arrival day or the day saves a lot of time and it is important to time the vacation properly as they do not usually sail on a daily basis. Thus it is important to coordinate with your resort or guest house before arriving regarding them. The airport transfer, however can be easily managed on your own and it also saves you at least 12 USD. If you intend to stay in more than 1 island, then, once again, it is important to schedule the itinerary as per the transfers dates. It is also cheaper and less time consuming to not change from southern atolls to northern ones.
Although the far flung islands are most beautiful and pristine, traveling to and fro from them needs a lot of preparation and planning. Most popular tourism islands are located within close proximity of a local airport and from there onward speedboat or dhow transfers are provided. The local airline Flyme caters to these islands and they do not have daily flights to all the airports. Flyme seats sell out fast and locating the closest airport of the atoll of your destination island makes Maldives transfer planning more hassle free.
Arriving into Male International Airport at Hulhule Island had been one of the loveliest travel feelings I had ever experienced and the relaxed vibe had immediately enveloped me upon landing. The cheerful island sun had kissed my face warmly and a salty sea breeze had tousled my tired hair A most gorgeous blue green ocean had lapped gently nearby and I had nearly cried out from excited happiness. It had seemed like the perfect gateway to a tropical island paradise and I had hungrily taken in the crowd of boats, yachts and colourful fishing dhows bobbing in the water. The Maldivian immigration procedure had matched with the island’s smooth, happy vibe and within minutes I had joined the crying gulls on the other side of the airport.
TRAVEL TIP- Indian passport holders are eligible for a 30 days Maldivian tourist visa on arrival and all you need to furnish are return ticket and hotel reservation vouchers. Although, these documents are rarely checked, it is more sensible to carry e or paper copy of the reservations.
A boat jetty had extended immediately upon leaving the airport premises and the travelers had queued up for the waiting water taxis. It had all been too exciting for me and I had loved the way the passengers, pilots, cabin crew and other airline staff had piled into the boats to get out of the airport. The scene had been of a quintessential island life and in the boat for the first in Maldives, (but not the last) time, I had the strange feeling of never having left the Indian soil. Every Maldivian face in the water taxi had looked as if they had been plucked straight off the South Indian states, yet our cultural difference had given out this strange familiarly alien aura. The feeling had been akin to deja vu, except that it had been for real and busy, noisy Male had arrived within minutes. This strange “deja vu” had been one of the constant accompaniments throughout my entire Maldives trip and despite the familiarity, I had never succeeded in crossing the cultural chasm and feeling at home there. A strict Islamic country Maldives prohibits consumption of alcohol and pork and dogs are not allowed on inhabited islands. Only the resorts are exempted from following the mandatory strict Islamic codes and that is why only a handful of atolls are granted with tourism permits.
Ironically, tourism is the backbone of the Maldivian economy and for a long time the island nation had catered only to rich clientele. The archipelago had never been a budget or backpacker friendly destination and recent opening of a handful of cheaper accommodations have made Maldives accessible to mid-range budget travelers. Thus, it had been possible for solo travelers like me to venture into the ultimate island destination and complete with white sands, endless blue ocean, dazzling marine life and gorgeous reefs, Maldives had promised to be absolutely unforgettable. The Male boat jetty, however had been very memorable and it had been an exact replica of its Indian counterpart, albeit on a much smaller scale. Familiar subcontinent sights and sounds had spilled out from it and complete mayhem had ruled there. Coconut sellers, porters, taxi drivers, resort touts, humid air, fisher women, excited large families, bewildered tourists and splashing, slightly dirty ocean waves had poured forth and to me, it could have been a scene from anywhere in coastal India. The unsettling familiarity had continued as I had walked along the motor cycle crammed streets of Male and the 10 minutes walk to the Skai lodge had been some of the most bewildering moments of my life. It had seemed to me as if I had fallen down some kind of magical rabbit hole and the entire experience had not been real. Familiar faces, South Indian movie songs, Bollywood, spicy aromas and cantankerous faintly known languages had bombarded me from all sides and I had helplessly drowned in an overwhelming lost feeling.
There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to recollect something, which seems to be stuck at the tip of your tongue and only the uncomfortable feeling of alien familiarity can perhaps rival it in annoyance. As mentioned before, this had been a constant Maldivian anathema for me and despite my perfectly blended local look, I had failed to like Male. For a dinner plate sized city, the Maldivian capital had buzzed with too much of energy and its busy streets had contained an insane amount of motorcycles. They had been everywhere, on every inch of the island city either stacked tightly in jam packed parking areas or constantly zipping around like crazy meteors. A few taxis and cars had constituted the rest of the traffic and I had found Male to be best explored on foot. The guesthouse Skai Lodge had been one of the new budget accommodations in Male and at 80 USD/night it had been clean and comparatively cheap.
Maldives had been gearing up for election during the time of my visit and the entire city had been bedecked with many colourful festoons. The whole atmosphere had seemed more festive and one of my favourite Male memories had been to amble under them on hot sunny noons. Maldivian afternoons had been pretty hot and going out for lunch had been an ordeal. The lane of my guesthouse, however had such a massive profusion of stringed electoral flags, that they had created a rainbow coloured fluttering shade which had completely cut out the sun. I had always walking under them as they had scattered multi hued pieces on the asphalt road and most of the times they had lead me to the ocean. All roads in Maldives lead to the Indian Ocean and the nation had been completely dependent on it. With so less landmass, hardly anything grew there and nearly everything had to be imported from foreign countries. India, had perhaps been, one of its biggest suppliers and nearly everything in Maldives had screamed of home. The Maldivian cuisine too had been a spicier version of South Indian coastal food and it had been hugely fish centrist.
Personally, I had found Maldivian cuisine to be pretty forgettable and a terrible dining experience had taught me to opt for only fishes during my entire stay. Thus my Male days had not been special enough to stand out among my travel memories and the island capital had made me feel slightly claustrophobic. While the days had not been too bad, the evenings had always made me lonesome and my Male nights had been spent craving for transfer to Fenfushi Island. It had been an inhabited island in one corner of Maldives and I had eagerly counted moments to get away to this idyllic paradise.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE
Today recollections of my offbeat Maldives experience bring me a lot of guilt and I am a supporter of “Boycott Maldives” community. Over the last few years, Maldives has been veering dangerously close to being a radical Muslim nation with imposition of strict Sharia law to terrorize its people. From handing out 7 years imprisonment for theft or consumption of alcohol, jailing their leader of Opposition and reinstating death penalty for children as young as 7 years, Maldives has become a rogue nation and perhaps pressure from being boycotted by tourists may be successful in making it amend ways. Joining Boycott Maldives is my personal decision and I am posting this series to bring out the dark side of paradise. Traveling is serious business and we can definitely bring about changes in the world by being responsible travelers. For more information and updates, check out the UN report, international outcry and death penalty to children in paradise