The other day Behan and I headed into Nolhivaranfaru, the little village we’d been anchored off of for the past few days. As we wandered the tidy grid of streets I was surprised by the grandeur of some of the houses peaking out from behind the high stone walls. Many of the homes we’re seen so far have been modest coral or cinder–block structures surrounded by fruit trees and enclosed by walls (often painted with political slogans). On Nolhivaranfaru there were also big blocks of government housing—apparently waiting to be filled by residents from other villages—as the Maldives seeks to centralize its population.
The main reason we headed in is we were planning to move on and Behan wanted to show me the ancient banyan tree in the village centre. I also wanted to take in some of the Koran recital competition that we’d been hearing amplified over the water. The reaction we got as we strolled the sand streets varied from engaged conversation, welcoming handshakes and smiles, to hard stares. We fell somewhere between guest and unwelcome distraction; despite having carefully dressed in long skirts and long sleeves our otherness still showed.
I’m not sure if this reaction is a reflection of the fact that the Local Tourism Law (which went into effect in 2009—and allows visitors to access islands outside of the approved ‘tourist’ islands) hasn’t really taken hold up here, or if Maldivian people are simply very reserved. Chances are we were among the first tourists (if not the first) to wander the village lanes.
A short while later, we pulled up anchor and headed toward Kulhudhuffushi (grocery store island for short, and the forth largest city in the Maldives). On the way we encountered a small pod of shy dwarf sperm whale and a sleepy pod of Risso’s dolphins—just two of the 21 species of whales and dolphins found here. As we slowly motored past the Risso’s dolphins, we watched them drift lazily on the surface, their white snouts pointed sunward. One breached. And a few did dolphin leaps—but mainly they just sunbathed.
Below the water the life is just as rich and diverse. Sea-temperature rise means the coral isn’t as vibrant as some we’ve seen, but we’ve seen some great formations and a lovely variety of fish life. Coral is everywhere—so it’s not hard to find a place to snorkel (it’s actually harder to find a place to anchor).
In Kulhudhuffushi we anchored in the international boat harbour—as the only boats, and waited for the customs officials to return from prayer so we could head ashore. When we headed into town I took in the faded yellow flags for the Maldivian Democratic Party that still flutter over the streets—despite the imprisonment of former President Mohamed Nasheed.
Lining the street were stores filled with a quirky miscellany; cinnamon next to a vice and a box of machetes, and areca nut (betel) found with the rice. What we couldn’t find was flour. Somehow in our provisioning, wheat flour was missed. We never carry tons; it’s easily infested and until now we’ve found it everywhere.
We searched along the wide sand streets and down a few narrow lanes. Visiting about a dozen stores we went through our spiel: ask for flour for bread, show a loaf of bread, and repeat the flour part. Usually we got a head shake. Occasionally the store clerk would look through the whole shop with us before sending us on to the next store. The worst moment came when we chased down the bakery truck only to have the driver look at us in confusion-despite the baked goods sitting beside him.
On a whim we went into on final store. As soon as we entered, we were ready to turn around, it had less on the shelves than most of the others, but when we went through our spiel the shop clerk opened up a bucket of flour.
Yesterday we arrived at a new anchorage. After a pretty snorkel the kids headed to shore and I made belated hot cross buns. Then Evan and I went in and joined the other cruisers sitting in a circle in the sand with the council president where they were talking about politics, drinking water shortages, sea level rise and fishing. A woman in a full hijab quietly brought us drinking coconuts—then returned to a circle of women a little ways away.
I peppered our host with questions—trying to get to the heart of the Maldives, trying to understand what it’s like to live in the place that the rest of the world sees as a perfect paradise.