Greetings from the Maldives!
The Maldives is the second country on my jail break trip from Hong Kong while waiting for the replacement computer. After an arduous week in Sri Lanka, I figured the Maldives would be just perfect – I mean we’ve all seen the pictures of the crystal blue water with huts constructed above – where better to give the body a break?
The Maldives is a country made up of over 200 islands, spread out across the Indian Ocean. Those pictures that we’ve all seen are at massive resorts on exclusive resort-owned islands. Which is a really long way to say expensive. We’re talking > $1000/night expensive. We’re talking out of my budget. So are there options for visitors who aren’t on a massive budget or a honeymoon? Yes.
In recent years, the Maldivian government has started to allow guesthouses to be run on locally inhabited islands (yes, that means that when you stay in those huge resorts, you are staying on islands that locals don’t even live on, they’re 100% resort-owned). Which means that there are now so many more options for travelers visiting on a budget. Now, of course, “budget” in the Maldives and in other countries, like Vietnam, are still on very different scales. But for my nights there, I was always in a place under $50 (at least before massive, separate service and government taxes). And flights in and out to nearby India or Sri Lanka can be as low as $50 each way.
I spent my time on three different islands – Male, Guraidhoo and Thulusdhoo. None of which are the island that you land on. The government runs ferries between all of the locally inhabited islands, which are great because they are about $.50-$2.50 each way. What’s not great about them is that many run only once a day, you can only buy tickets day-of and they sell out. If you can’t get your hands on a ticket, you run the risk of being stuck wherever you are (hope you don’t have a flight to catch) or grabbing a speed boat at a mere $250. So we’ll say I was careful to get tickets. On one ferry that was full, a local guesthouse owner negotiated to get me sitting on top of the boat, with a few other locals. For the same price of course, but it was a ride.
Male City is the capital and hub of activity for the country. Walking around the island was met with everyone working – fishermen on their way in or getting ready to head out, the new stock of lumber being unloaded on to the shelves, the new bridge construction under way. For such a small island, it was hectic. This is of course where the mass of the population lives and works, and I was told that a significant portion of the workers are Bangladeshi immigrants seeking to make money to send home.
After my surf lesson in Sri Lanka, I was eager to try my skills again and practice more. From what I read, the Maldives would be a great option for it. But I struck out. Male City has one of the best breaks in the country, but it is shut down due to construction of a bridge to connect the island hub with the airport (though, under protest as locals claim there’s no reason that they shouldn’t be able to surf as the construction activity is no where near the break). On the second island, Guraidhoo, there were a few breaks. The guy running my guesthouse even got a loaned board for me, one of his friends gave up his water shoes for me and another took me out to the break. On the way out, we were constantly fighting a current and there were so many rocks and so much reef. I opted out – the water was too shallow and there were too many obstacles for my skill level. When we came back in, even the other locals were coming in with blood dripping down their shins. I felt good about my choice. The other break on that island was too big due to a storm. Third island would be the winner, right? I even stayed at a place with “surf camp” in the name. But as I checked the breaks out – before bringing a board this time because you had to cross a sketchy bridge – I found the same concerns of shallow water and reef breaks. Strike three. I’m out. I opted for a stand up paddle board, which I could barely stay on because of the water.
Am I bummed that I didn’t get to work on my new surfing skills? Absolutely. Do I regret opting out? Absolutely not. This is one of the things that has been hardest for me as I have traveled – I like to think that I have always had the risk it, try new things, get out there, anything you can do I can do mentality. But especially when you’re alone, and when you’re traveling, you have to weigh that risk against what the consequences could really mean. Were I at home, would I be as concerned about some cuts and bruises? Probably not. But with questionable-at-best access to healthcare (antibiotics are definitely recommended for reef cuts) and a tough travel schedule ahead in dirty places requiring physical effort, it just wasn’t worth it. It’s kind of like getting a tattoo – cuts and scrapes are really fine on their own, but if you’re signing up for them, you want to know that you are going to be able to give them the proper after care.
So with surfing off the table, the visit was filled with beach time, island exploring, reading and relaxing and baby sharks. Oh yeah, I said it. Baby. Sharks.
The baby sharks stay in the shallow reef waters where they are protected from larger predators. And they’re everywhere. Swimming in that shallow of water is quite difficult, but once you get in and float there a bit, the sharks even seem to warm to you a bit. They are still skittish and won’t let you near them, but they’ll get just a little closer. I also made a few fish friends who, once I was hanging out, didn’t go more than a foot away from me the whole time. I’m going to guess that my presence signified safety for them. That or they really wanted in on the pictures.
You’ll notice a few things that were absent from my list of activities – bikinis and booze. The Maldives is a strict Muslim country. Which means that alcohol is only available on those resort-owned islands and dress is conservative. This is really important if you stay on locally-inhabited islands – there are few to little options for “bikini beaches.” Otherwise, women should be covered with at least long shorts and a t-shirt. Even in my one-piece suit and long shorts, I felt underdressed. I was way less than impressed with a couple I saw on one of the beaches, he in a Speedo style suit and she in barely-there bottoms. Do I think women should have to cover up in the Maldives or anywhere else? Absolutely not. But do I think visitors should respect such local customs?
I did also manage to get, kind of, escorted off an island. In Guraidhoo, there is a small island resort wading distance from the shore. There are actually three islands – Guraidhoo, Picnic Beach and the Holiday Inn. I had been at Picnic Beach all day and decided to wade on over to the Holiday Inn island to check it out (maybe they had different surfing options). At one point on my way over I realized I was in the background of some wedding photos and didn’t know what to do. Hopefully the photog is a real professional and noticed the awkward backpacker in the background and Photoshopped me out. I spent some time on the island, enjoyed great Wi-Fi, the sunset and music, and a few beers. I went to the spot that I had seen to wade back over to Guraidhoo itself.
Right as I was about to step into the water, I noticed a massive (~2 feet wide) stingray snuggled in the sand. I took my phone out to use the flashlight app on it and started to try to cross, holding my backpack up with one hand and phone with the other. Easy right? Then the water got deeper and deeper. Too deep to cross. Too scared of stingrays. I came out to look for a security guard, who saw my flashlight and asked if I was looking for something. I explained I just wanted to cross back and he was confused. What did I mean “back?” Long story short, apparently you’re not supposed to walk over to the island if you aren’t a guest (though I certainly didn’t hide it, telling the people I paid with cash, because I didn’t have a room to charge to, and the front desk to get a Wi-Fi code). He called his boss, who took me to his boss, who put me on a small boat. They laughed at my spirit, were happy I enjoyed the island and told me “don’t do it again.”
What would one of my country visits be without accidentally, awkwardly and charmingly getting into trouble?