Beyond the Shallow Reefs (Depth in Maldives)

All one ever seems to see of the Maldives is the endless picture perfect white beaches, clear lagoons and luxury over-water villas with glamorous Instagram perfect newlyweds. Having visited there earlier this month, I can report that they are indeed the reality. The Maldives is just like the glamorous travel brochures: totally stunning.

Prior to arriving I attempted to find information about an alternative side of the country for me to experience. Everything led me back to visiting one of the many many international five star resorts. It was as if everyone was in denial that there could possibly be a cultural side to the Maldives. Surely this could not be the case? The locals must have their own food for starters!

After an initial bad start at the airport and a mediocre first night on artificial island, Hulhumalé, I found myself aboard a modest private motor yacht and it was blue skies from here on in. It was 8.30am as we started to cruise the open seas and breakfast was to be served and I was immediately given a cold can of Heineken. “Now you’re talking my language!”

Maldives is an Islamic nation; alcohol is banned for the local population. Resorts and liveaboard boats are generally licensed to serve alcohol to guests. However, it is known that many of the locals do like to party as much as the rest of us: just don’t get any photo evidence of it.

Breakfast consisted of “mas huni” (tuna, onion, coconut, and chili), dhal, beans & rice. This was the start of my love affair with the local food and naturally the people passionately preparing the simple and tasty dishes. Despite being influenced by neighbouring Sri Lanka, they can certainly be classified as Maldivian. There’s no wonder that so much of the food is fish. 99% of the country is sea. On my first day, I was blessed to see dolphins, turtles, manta rays and many more.

We spent the next couple of days visiting several idyllic islands that are resort-free zones where the local inhabitants have harnessed the tourism boom by starting homestays and guest houses. In 2009, the travel restriction on foreigners was lifted, allowing independent budget-conscious travellers to visit the Maldives for the first time and immerse themselves in local life, including hanging at the beach.

My male hosts were only too happy to answer my numerous questions and all seemed to have a knack of being splendid story tellers and holding strong political views.

The Maldives is an archipelago of 1,192 coral islands, grouped into 26 coral atolls (200 inhabited islands, plus 80 islands with tourist resorts). On local islands, alcohol is not permitted and women are not allowed to wear bikinis, except on designated “Bikini Beaches”. Local women swim fully clothed. I was told that there’s an increasing trend for the Maldivian women to wear the head covering, Hijab. More so from a fashion angle than a religious one and that “the younger girls are too lazy to do their hair”!

I was delighted (and relieved) to experience time with the locals and pleased I was also able to mix my stay by ending up indulging at one of those luxurious five star resorts. Two planes & an hour speedboat later… Don’t be surprised if the pilots are wearing shorts and jandals.

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