May 2, 2015

More Maldives

A Dhoani taking tourists for a sunset ride
I love it when a country surprises me.
Maybe it’s the sombre clothing, the women dressed in flowing black dresses and hijabs; or perhaps it’s the reserved way the locals interact, as welcome as we feel its tough to get a smile or wave out of people: but the Maldives feel very sedate and steady, and very unsurprising. It’s not the kind of place that you’d expect to have 12 different names for a coconut. Or even the kind of place where a coconut might be detained by the police. But during the 2013 election a kihah (young drinking coconut) was suspected of being infused with black magic and was accused of vote-rigging in a key presidential election.

The kihah was found innocent and released.

posters and political slogans are found throughout the islands
Much of what makes the Maldives intriguing is how little most people know about it. The common perception is of a sun-kissed paradise that caters to the well-heeled and honeymooning. And up until 2010 (after the Local Tourism Laws were passed by Mohamed Nasheed in 2009) exclusive resorts were about all outsiders ever saw of the Maldives.

In truth, it’s a deeply complex country of 394,000 (with one third of those being foreign or illegal workers). Most people either work in the resorts, for the government or they fish. Right now the Islamic Republic is struggling to stabilize its nascent democracy. But just yesterday thousands protested against the government in Male and hundreds (including several members of the opposing political party) were arrested.

we spend hours everyday in the warm water

Despite the turmoil, the Maldives feels very peaceful. We were lucky enough to spend the past two days being shown around a couple of villages (when we were out of the water—which is tough, the water is amazing). 

a local boat getting repairs
On Maamigili Island Jamsheed walked us through the town to the shore where traditional wooden boats being built. There we were told they are built without plans or nails and that the master boat builder has the blueprints in his head. From there he took us past the gardens and then to a local restaurant where he treated us to a traditional lunch where he encouraged us to try a little post-lunch adafi (betel leaf and areca nut with a little breath-freshening mint and clove).

my skeptical face...
Over the adafi (I’m pretty sure I got the delicate-white-tourist-lady serving because I never noticed any sort of effect) our talk turned to how the tourism laws are perceived in the villages. Jamsheed explained that more conservative Muslims are worried that the outside influence of foreigners will dilute community and religious values. But as the owner of a guesthouse he’s discovered the opposite is true. Most people who come to the islands want to learn about the local culture, he explained, so the local culture has a chance to become stronger.

We talked a while about village life and politics, and then Jamsheed asked us if we needed any coconuts. We told him we already have a few aboard and then we commiserated over how tricky it is to get the young drinking coconuts. Then we learned those aren’t coconuts. A coconut (the mature kind with meat) is a kaashi. But a kihah is for drinking (or placing curses on someone…) and therefore it’s not a coconut.

So armed with twelve names for coconuts, and a deeper understanding of village life, we headed back to the boat and dove back into the gorgeous water and looked forward to all the surprises to come.


XRX XJX said...

I think I read an article of yours on the BBC, and found the site. thank you so much for writing about your voyage! I'm actually visiting the islands in early november and any contacts there are appreciated. It really is a mess online to find any real information apart from what the SEO Driven travel and hotel/resort sites want you to see. Using your information to do some more research...

Will it really matter which atoll I go to? I really just want to swim, maybe snorkel, and would love to be out on the water watching the sunrise on one of the mornings. I'll be arriving in Male...

Again, thanks for your help. Feel free to email directly if you can pull that information.

A Canadian South Indian in New York

Diane, Evan, Maia and Charlie the cat said...

Hello--the atolls can matter a bit--the ones around Male are much busier and actually have more garbage problems etc. The further you go the more local transport you need to use. The ferries are fun but don't run super frequently but the local flights are pretty reasonable. Your best bet is to read tripadvisor and look for guesthouses and B and B's then read the descriptions carefully. Almost any village will give you a chance to swim and snorkel (bring your own gear though if you can) and hiring a boat (or being invited on a morning fishing trip) will be easy once you're there. If you are after a quiet, affordable and friendly holiday the guesthouses will be ideal.