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Maldives - a cluster of beautiful islands but not for backpackers
Words like “the sunny side of life”, “cobalt blue water” and “coral reefs” were enough to lure me to Maldives. But it was nowhere warned that 'backpackers' do not dare ‘come in’. Brochures and websites were filled with all types of superlatives but stated only the half-truth. It was high-end but low-volume tourism for maximizing income and minimizing devastation of natural resources. I found prices sky-high even for the resorts at the bottom end. I had no alternative but to ebb out.
Arriving at Male airport was, however, a pure delight. I kept gazing out of the window as plane started to descend. I could see small islands (atolls) amidst azure blue sea. The islands were surrounded by palm-fringed beaches with snow white sand.
Male International Airport
From the air, the Male Airport looked like an aircraft carrier. It had only one runway that began and ended in water. I felt as if my plane was about to splash into water. But its wheels suddenly bounced onto the asphalt. It was not North Africa otherwise the passengers would have given a big hand to the pilot for safe-landing.
The airport could be rated as second class. It was opened in 1960. Its first runway was made of slotted steel sheets. About 4 years later, the steel sheets were replaced by asphalt under a modernization project. But related facilities were not upgraded. When the passengers got down from the aircraft, no bus was readily available to take us to the immigration hall. After much delay, one arrived but broke down within a few minutes. An alternate bus took time to come and the initial charm faded away.
Bad experience in custom clearance
While immigration formalities were simple, I had heck of a time in customs. No one checked my luggage but all surrounded me and asked me irrelevant questions like “What is your occupation?” I told them that I was a university professor. “Show us some employment related documents”, one chipped in. “What documents!!! I have not come here for a job, I’m a tourist”, I objected. To this, someone approached me and said that they just wanted to enhance their knowledge. I showed them my visiting card containing a number of degrees and they discussed each and every degree often turning to me for clarification. It appeared that they could not have dared ask such silly questions to the Westerners and so all guns were aimed at me. Eventually, a senior official came to my rescue and led me out of the terminal with apologies.
No taxis but boats
The airport was on an island known as ‘Hulhule’. It was so small that it could barely accommodate the airport and related facilities. There were boats just outside the gates to ferry passengers 2 km away to the Capital City, Male.
I had booking for Kaani Lodge for US$40 per night for a simple room to sleep in. No frills, no breakfast, no restaurant and no lobby. ‘Just out of the room and into the street’ setting. It proved the old maxim, “what you pay for is what you get.” The only redeeming factor was that the lodge was managed by an Indian who advised me how to move around on public ferries and go for nearby islands.
Male, the capital city
Next day, I had early breakfast and moved in the city, the island of Male. Its total area is hardly 1.8 sq. km but population was relatively large, about 100,000 people. This made the city second most populated island after Hong Kong.
Necessary utilities were managed within the island. While power was provided by diesel generators, water was being pumped out from deep well and desalinated. Sewage was flushed out into sea while solid waste was transported to nearby islands to fill in lagoons. The airport was built in this way.
The bazaars had small streets, some so narrow that I could touch walls on the both sides by stretching my hands. Despite this, the shops were filled with handicrafts, garments, electronic gadgetry and cosmetic. It was quite safe to move around, there being no muggers, no scammers, no hustlers or even no beggars. The people were very friendly and provided full guidance whenever approached to.
There were plenty of cafes and restaurants offering different cuisines apart from sea-food. The streets of white-washed houses were heavily built up, living conditions often cramped and areas of communal open space sparse. The houses had interesting names like "The Night Flower”, “Lovers’ Paradise etc."
Land-Marks in Male
I covered most of the landmarks like Friday Mosque which was intricately carved with Arabic writings and ornamental patterns. The Independent Square was the center point with a little park and a flagpole with a giant Maldivian flag. Islamic Centre was an architectural delight containing a large mosque topped with a golden dome.
National Museum was housed in a converted palace and had some old artifacts, royal regalia besides some historical photographs. The entry fee was US$ 3 which looked on the high side considering the contents displayed therein.
In the evening I went to Fish Market. Lots of fishing boats were docked around. It was not clean as tuna fish blood was spread all around. However, there was a good café upstairs serving the “just-caught’ fish at reasonable prices.
On my last day, I went to a nearby island. For this, I walked to the southern edge of Male where there was a boat terminal. A 20 minutes of boat ride took me to an artificial island known as Hulhumale.
A stroll within the island was very refreshing. It was already the size of Male and will be more than double in area once second phase of land reclamation is completed. Signs were already there in the shape of apartment complexes, condominiums, terraced houses, schools, mosques and other social amenities. A large area was reserved for cultivation of indigenous and imported plants.
On the beach side, there were a lot of shops for scuba diving. I gossiped with a local resident, Amin Didi, who told me with pride,”Very pretty here, fresh air, new people."
At some distance seaplanes were taxing up to a floating pontoon. It was lovely to see their coming and going. Bit noisy but giving a lot of thrill in their take-off and landing.
Since it was my last day, I sat for hours in a make-shift structure of grass and bamboo-poles with wooden table and chair under the shade of coconut trees. Perhaps, it was developing like a budget cottage to compete with water-bungalows floating in the blue sea water. To me, a budget cottage for $15 per day would give more value than a $250-a-day bungalow “exquisitely furnished with contemporary décor, equipped with remote control air-conditioner, ceiling fan, private bathroom-hot/cold shower and toilet, spacious private balcony offer panoramic vistas of blue sea, colour TV with satellite channels, mini bar and in-room safety box.”
Maldives is a small island nation. It is located 300 km from the South West tail-end of India. It is a chain of nearly 1,200 islands of which 200 are inhabited. These islands are spread over 90,000 square kilometers.
Maldives enjoyed Per Capita Income of $4,600, highest among the South Asian Countries. But income disparity was equally high dividing the country into just two classes: noble and common like rich and poor.
It is the smallest country in Asia but most expensive and sadly most endangered. The maximum height of the land is 2.3 metres above sea level. Being lowest on the planet, it could vanish if sea-level continue to rise due to global warming.
In 2004, the country was devastated by the tsunami. As many as 60 islands were seriously affected. Of these, 14 had to be totally evacuated while six were completely destroyed. People from 16 islands are being relocated as rising sea had resulted in salinisation and depletion of fresh water.
While sipping coconut water in the grass hut, I shuddered with the thought that one day this beautiful country may be swallowed up by the mighty sea.