“Don’t look at the sea too much, your heart could turn to stone.” So goes the Maldivian saying. It’s an aphorism that sums up how most tourists treat the Maldives. The supermodel of the travel world, we’ve been so beguiled by the sleek images of her sunny skies and palm-tree perfection it’s seemingly rendered us unable to look further. And there’s more to the country than white sands and five-star water villas.
Lying off the southwestern tip of India, the Maldives is made up of around 1,190 islands, scattered in a straight line running north-south for around 560 miles, of which only around 200 are inhabited. In an effort to get a glimpse of real island life, I’ve joined an Explore cruise aboard a traditional dhoni, stopping at a handful of islands and reefs in the Southern Atolls.
After a night in the capital, Malé, we mosey down to the docks and motor out on a dinghy to meet Gulfaam, our blue-and-white sailing boat — “or ‘putter-putter-mega-slow’, as we like to call her,” jokes our guide, Teddie, as we clamber aboard. He has a mop of black curls and a bushy beard and it’s with an adopted Aussie accent that he introduces our 10-strong group to the rest of the crew: Captain ‘Milky Tea’ George, Bablu the chef, cabin boy Sam, and 18-year-old deckhand Hassan, from Bangladesh, “who’s still getting used to seeing girls in their bikinis,” teases Teddie, squeezing Hassan’s blushing cheeks. He launches into the safety briefing, while George powers up the engine. “What about sharks while we’re snorkelling?” asks a wobbly voice at the back of the group. “The only large ones are nurse sharks and the worst they can do is gum you to death,” he laughs.
After a few encounters with turtles and triggerfish, we head for Dhiggaru, in the Meemu Atoll — home to roughly 1,300 Maldivians and not a single resort. On approach, I can see a satellite mast piercing the tree line and, on the fringes, a yellow digger scooping up sand from the shallows and returning it to the beach — slowing the pace of a sea that’s hungrily devouring the shore. It’s a stark reminder of the challenges facing islanders. The lowest country on Earth, the Maldives will be the first claimed by rising sea levels, and efforts to keep it at bay are relentless. “We were meant to be underwater by 2005, but we’re still here,” remarks Teddie.
Our arrival at the dock coincides with a ferry delivery. The men are unloading gas canisters, cement, clothes-drying racks, cans of Milo chocolate powder and potatoes, but Teddie gets distracted. “Look at this — a joli!” he squeals, flinging himself into the seat of a tree swing hanging from a nearby palm. “My father used to sit in one of these and play chess.”
We wander towards a fish market. It’s empty, but nearby three men sit by the waterline gutting fish. They look at our small group in bemusement as we’re told the island is famous for its rihaakuru (fish paste). We’re led into a wooden shed behind them where a huge metal pot is bubbling away over smouldering coconut husks.
Teddie tells me they’ll boil the fish — a mix of rainbow runners, skipjack tuna and bonito — until the water turns red, then the women mash it into a fine paste. They used to rely on rainwater to wash the fish before a desalination plant was built last year. “Leftovers are laid out on smoking racks then vacuum-packed and exported to India,” he adds, pointing to the musty-smelling rows of fish bits drying in the sun.
Moving further into the village, Teddie points out the wide, straight streets. “In the 1950s, our first president, Mohamed Amin Didi — nicknamed The Great Moderniser — basically ordered the fishermen to rebuild their homes along vertical lines, having them beaten or imprisoned if they didn’t comply.” These new walled-in houses disrupted the sense of community and, even worse, they no longer diverted the evil spirits that move in straight lines and haunt the land. “Everyone in the Maldives believes in spirits — I’ve never encountered one, but I still believe it,” says Teddie, deadpan. White-flowering kandolhu are planted outside houses and mosques to guard against these otherworldly beings. Fall into the sea and, it’s said, there’s a risk Kandufureta (a flesh-eating, blood-drinking demon) could take you. This legend is thought to have arisen from the freak occasions when seals or crocodiles were found washed up on beaches.
Teddie’s narration is interrupted by the tinny voice of an imam calling the men to prayer over a loudspeaker. They emerge from doorways dressed in striped Maldivian lungis (sarongs) and stoop to wash their feet and face at taps posted outside the mosque.
Originally, island mosques were wooden structures — so ornate they attracted the admiration of medieval travellers such as Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar who remarked on their beauty in his writings. Today, the modern minarets are painted in shades of peppermint cream.
In the fading light we reach the eastern side of the island, where crew member Sam lives in his mother Sobira’s house with his wife, Shafeega, and their eight month-old daughter, Amysha. Sam scoops the young girl into his arms as she waddles toward him. A gaggle of boys pounce on us for group photos and we play until Teddie moves us on. “If we’re lucky, we might see the women playing bashi [the national game],” he enthuses, as we round a corner. “It’s like a form of rounders with a net.” But instead we find a group of barefoot men kicking a football around in the twilight. Land may be at a premium here, but it seems there’s always room for a full-size pitch.
In the distance tall storm clouds are gathering, so the group returns to the dinghies and I follow Sam back to his mother’s house. Street lamps now light the dark sandy roads, which have emptied completely. “It’s bad luck to allow kids out of the house after the last call to prayer,” says Teddie. “The evil spirits might be lurking.”
“Come look at this,” he says, jumping up to peer over a high wall and through a window into someone’s living room. “You see that tall wooden swing chair? We call it an undhoali. You used to find them everywhere, but they’re becoming rarer. Women comfort their babies by rocking back and forth in them, the slight breeze keeping away the mosquitoes.” A half smile spreads across his lips, as if he’s remembering days with his own mother.
Sobira is standing in the neon light of her kitchen as we cross the threshold. With my hand held to my heart, I greet her in the Dhivehi language: “Assalamu alaikum.” She’s wearing a pink floral dress and black hijab — evidence, perhaps, of the stricter form of Islam that’s taken root in the Maldives. It wasn’t always this way; the country was originally Buddhist, only switching to Islam in the 12th century — a fact that doesn’t seem to be widely known here. I recall an excerpt from a book I’d found on the Gulfaam, written by the Spanish scholar and writer Xavier Romero Frías, who lived in the Maldives for 20 years: ‘Maldivian past is like a misty region, giving the impression that the actual character of the Maldives is concealed behind a mask. Foreign values are attractive because they’re only vaguely aware of their own.’ I run this idea past Teddie later. “It’s true. My sisters have only been wearing the hijab since 2009 — they felt they had to. The internet has helped to us to see more than one side of the story, though.”
Sobira lays out a plate of ‘short eats’ (deep-fried fish balls, samosas and the like) and pours me a glass of syrupy orange juice. The snacks are as hard as golf balls and I try to crack one open as politely as possible as we chat. Teddie keeps an eye on me and mimes to break it open with my hands first. “Be careful, they’re really spicy,” he whispers. I shrug. “Wait for it,” he smiles. And then the scotch bonnet chilli hits home. “Holy…!” I splutter, taking a glug of juice.
Rain thunders on the roof as I chat with Sobira. Married at 15, she had seven children. “Six survive,” she says sadly. “But I have seven grandchildren now — I like it when tourists visit the village because it makes them smile, so I smile,” she adds, her eyes suddenly creasing with joy. I ask her what the women do on the island. “Every Friday, we collect the rubbish washed ashore to keep it clean,” comes her reply. And what of the rising sea level? “I feel sad because I can do nothing about it. I wonder where I’d go,” she replies. “Our national news doesn’t really discuss it,” she adds, her voice petering out.
By the time we leave, the rain has ceased and the stars shine as bright as flashlights above us. Motoring the dinghy back in the blackness, the lights of the Gulfaam merge with the night sky and, drawing closer, we spy the ghostly shadows of bottlenose dolphins streaking through the boat’s beams, snatching cuttlefish as they rise to the surface.
All washed up
I awake to see slender spouts twisting down from the clouds, like a straw sucking up water. Then spinner dolphins corkscrew out of the ocean. They’re the third pod to pass us and I’m impatient to slip into the water with them, so I grab my mask and fins and fling myself off the side of the boat. Dozens of them stream below, their heads half-cocked towards me, their echolocation clicks crackling through me like electricity.
I’m still tingling by the time we arrive at our next island, Bodumohoraa. Uninhabited, save for a pair of sand martins, it sits on the Great Chagos Bank — the world’s ninth-longest reef — and is the quintessential island of dreams: sandy, palm-fringed and lapped by warm, translucent waters. But wandering along the shoreline, I find piles of plastic water bottles, polystyrene fragments and beer bottles. These haven’t been washed in with the tide; they’re rubbish left over from candlelit picnics similar to the one we’d enjoyed a few nights earlier on Fenbo Finolhu. “Our laws are topsy-turvy. If you’re caught with 100ml of alcohol you’re jailed for eight months, no questions asked; but dump bagfuls of litter off the boat and it’s only a $700 fine — and they have to catch you first,” says Teddie, scanning the boundless blue horizon, as if to prove his point.
“Litter is a real problem in the Maldives, and there’s a real lack of education about the issue,” Teddie tells me. “Friends of mine would flutter their silver betel nut wrappings into the sea. I didn’t say anything, but I kept jumping in and scooping them out, until eventually they asked what I was doing. Now they’ve stopped. On my last trip we cleaned up the whole island of Vattaru and took the rubbish back to Malé for recycling.” I ask him for a black bin bag and started filling it with the empty bottles, happy that at least I’m joining the ranks of Sobira and the other women of Dhiggaru.
We cast off and soon catch sight of Fulidhoo, an island in the Vaavu Atoll that’s home to 430 people and a couple of guesthouses. “The island is best known for its boat-building,” explains Teddie, as we disembark and tiptoe across the wood chipping-strewn floor of the boatyard.
“In the past it was all palm-wood hulls treated with oil tapped from whale sharks, but now it’s mostly fibreglass,” he reassures us we reach a wide, empty lane. “It’s rush hour at the moment on the main road,” Teddie jokes. We stroll down ‘main street’, shadowed by breadfruit and papaya trees, past a handful of shops selling sarongs and fish mobiles as souvenirs. I glimpse locals playing badminton behind their homestead walls and pass elderly women gossiping in their jolis. I point, enquiringly, to a cluster of coconut palms whose barks have been daubed with white numbers. “So you can’t steal your neighbour’s nuts,” Teddie explains. At the end of the street sits the atoll school. Attended Sunday to Thursday, the classrooms now sit empty, but the teachers are squatting beside the outer walls, decorating them with painted cartoon characters.
It’s time for dinner and as we wait for the dinghies to collect us, I watch a fruit bat flit through the tree line while boys hurl themselves off the pier into the calm ocean. Back on board, Sam is fishing for cuttlefish. As he hoists one up, a jet of black ink sprays all over the deck and stains his hands, face and hair. He squeals and jumps off the boat to rinse it off. Then the cuttlefish are cut up, fried and served for supper along with garudhiya (spicy fish soup) and mashuni (grated coconut with lime, chilli and onions).
Come nightfall, we return to the beach. A boduberu beat (an African rhythm introduced by passing sailors centuries ago) vibrates the sand under our bare feet. Muscular men pound big drums carved from palm trunks and stretched with stingray or goat skin, singing songs about fishing, flowers and beauteous females. Hassan, our deckhand, hands me a mangrove branch, inviting me to dance. The beat grows faster and faster and we spin around, stamping our feet until we’re slick with sweat. Then another, darker, sound starts to play and Hassan leaps into the centre stage — head cocked to one side as if decapitated, arms flailing. “He’s babaru — the bogeyman,” cries Teddie. “You have to make faces at him!” So we poke out our tongues and giggle at the young children who gape wide-eyed at this evil spirit come to life.
Maldivians may feel they have reason to be fearful these days — be it rising seas or evil spirits. But they’ve managed to keep hold of what many of us have lost: a delight in the small things — sitting with friends, the feel of sand between your toes, a good old boogie to boduberu… Good beaches can be found anywhere, but these are islands with soul. No hearts have turned to stone here.
Emirates flies daily to Malé from most major UK airports via Dubai. Turkish Airlines flies there daily from London airports with a connection in Istanbul. SriLankan Airlines flies daily to Malé via Colombo.
Speedboat and dhoni charters are available, as well as seaplane transfers with Trans Maldivian Airways, but by far the cheapest — albeit more infrequent — island-hopping option is to use the local ferries, which now service all inhabited islands. Ticket prices and timetables are listed on the Atoll Transfer website.
When to go
Rain can fall at any time in the Maldives but is most likely in monsoon season (May-November). Peak season, December-April, is drier and warmer — and considerably more expensive.
Gatecrashing Paradise: Misadventures in the Real Maldives, by Tom Chesshyre. RRP: £10.99 (Nicholas Brealey)
How to do it
Explore offers the eight-day Maldive Dhoni Cruise from £1,765 per person. Includes flights, six nights’ boat and one night hotel accommodation, most meals and a guide.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)