The Other Side of Paradise: Maafushi, Maldives
As the ferry slowly pulled up to the pier, the large hanging grey clouds rumbled slowly, threatening to rain. Chris and I looked uncertainly the sky and then at our approaching destination: Maafushi Island of Maldives.
We had been super excited when we spotted a reasonably affordable guesthouse on Maafushi while researching for accommodation on the Internet. Double rooms started from USD35—it felt almost too good to be true!
However, as Maafushi grew closer and closer, my heart sank a little.
There were no powdery white sands or a magnificent coastline to greet us. Instead, around the pier were large slabs on concrete lying around, broken rocks, a shrub or two, bits and pieces of washed up seaweed and trash. Plastic bottles, empty Red Bull cans and construction materials were strewn all over the place.
Wait—is this supposed to be Maldives? Where’s the paradise that people have been talking about?
Male hadn’t impressed me much on first glance, but I thought that’s the capital city. Busy, chaotic and a little dirty–that’s what capital cities are (except Singapore!).
Maafushi on the other hand, is supposed to be a charming little island with a thriving local economy. Currently one of the more popular destinations for independent travellers on Maldives, it’s reputed to house more than 30 guesthouses on the island. Tourists would be turning up by the boatfuls each day and expecting an island that is resembles somewhat a paradise than a work-in-process island.
However, I let my bad thoughts slip when we saw a tall, dark man, holding a sign of our guesthouse. He shook our hands and introduced himself as Hassan, the manager of Picnic Inn.
We then placed our backpacks into some sort of luggage wagon-a wooden wheelbarrow-where one of the guesthouse staff would then help wheel it to our booked accommodation.
Surely there is more to this than just this side of Maafushi, I thought.
I hate judging places based on first impressions but thinking of Maldives had only conjured up one image: a breathtaking palm-tree paradise. I had not expected otherwise or anything remotely different from the pictures that I had seen on the Internet.
As we walked with Hassan and other guests, snaking through the rows of one-storey buildings and empty streets, a nagging feeling tugged.
I could not see myself spending 4 nights here. Shame filled me right after that dreadful thought.
Upon arriving at our guesthouse, a smiley young man served us cold papaya juice. It was sweet and refreshing. I instantly liked the look of my surroundings. It was small but very charming. The yellow walls lent a cosy touch. The minute we were taken to our rooms, we succumbed to exhaustion. The pillows were so snug and the bed so comfortable that in no time, we fell into a deep sleep.
“Psst, wake up!” Chris said, a little too loudly in the dark.
I pretended I didn’t hear him.
“Hun, we’ve been asleep for more than 12 hours! It’s almost 6 in the morning now and look, it’s already so bright!”
I sat up instantly. What? Were we so tired that we had slept past our dinners and into the next day?
Chris was right. At dawn, the hallways were already brightly lit with the first rays of sunlight.
We’re in Maldives and we just slept? I chided myself.
However, we had needed that sleep. Now that we had fully recovered from our yesterday’s early flight, we felt at once empowered by curiosity and anticipation. I was eager to acquaint myself with Maafushi better.
MAAFUSHI AT DAWN
The surrounding neighbourhood was peacefully quiet. Only restless elderly women, who had woken up early to sweep their front yards, were seen. In the soft golden light, I noticed the blue, green and pink houses and sometimes, in front of them, strange hammocks.
We headed towards to the other coast, the one opposite from the pier.
More garbage, a sewage processing centre, a few stray cats, and a large fenced-off area. I studied a crude map that I found on a wall and turned out that the large fenced off area belongs to a prison. Right.
The ground was hard and uneven. Puddles of water had filled up the holes on the ground. It must have rained yesterday.
And then a mosque, random football goal posts, and finally, at a public beach. Here, under the morning light, was a long stretch of solitude. Tranquility hovered over the horizon. There were no waves; the sea was as still as a lake. A nearby sign indicated that bikinis were not allowed here.
Then, in the distance, we heard delightful shrieks breaking through the silence. In the far end, we saw local women, splashing around in full black robes. They were having fun unabashedly.
It was astonishingly beautiful. Not being able to put on a sexy swimsuit didn’t deter these women from enjoying nature.
As we continued our morning walk, signs of life appeared gradually. A black cat took a liking to us and started tagging along. Hotel staff wiping away twigs from their outdoor furniture. A fruit vendor, urging us to try out fresh coconuts and fruits from his mobile kiosk.
The sun rose higher. The salty air blew, swaying the coconut palms and hanging hammocks gently. I could feel it.
A splendid start to our Maldivian adventure.
A TRUE LOCAL EXPERIENCE ON MAAFUSHI
The next few days, Maafushi grew on us. Apart from a stunning ‘Bikini Beach’ where we later discovered, there were plenty of things that we would have missed if we had just stayed on a so-called paradise. We would have missed the young Maldivian children, going to school, who then later adjourned to playing football on the streets. We would have missed the simple afternoon coffees at a local café, which had turned out to be a perfect place to sample a slice of a local life. We would have missed the morning fish market where locals gather around to buy the freshest catch. We would have missed of vibrant colours of the buildings that brightened up even the drabbest alleys.
We would have missed the relaxed vibe amongst the locals.
Most of all, we would have totally missed the sensation of being in Maldives-the real country behind the postcards. When we later got to spend a day at Fihalhohi Resort, we thought about how so many of these tourists who only flock to these luxurious private resorts, would never get a chance to experience a true Maldivian hospitality or lifestyle. In these private islands, every hint of Maldivian culture is removed from the experience. You can drink, you can sunbathe in bikinis if you like, and you won’t even feel the difference—whether you’re in Bora Bora, Seychelles or Maldives—you wouldn’t have been able to tell.
Never in the world would I have considered Maldives to be an off-the-beaten-track sort of country but after spending a few days in Maafushi and one night in Hulhumale, my perspective about the country had changed. I still don’t know much about the country but at least I know now that there’s more to the country than just a stunning tropical paradise.
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