There is nothing in MalÃ©,” everyone barks, astonished that I would want to forgo—even for a day–the hedonistic delights on offer at a resort, to shuffle about in one of the world’s smallest and most densely packed cities.
Indeed, it takes a supreme effort of will to drag oneself out of a Maldivian resort’s infinity pool and the personal butler’s (thakuru) pamperings to go anywhere. Even to the sea. Most cottages fan out into the turquoise lagoons and from the sundeck, with the beach way behind you, you feel you are already at sea, so why bother.
Most tourists to the Maldives see and care for nothing besides, whisked as they are from the airport in such an efficient hurry by the resort speedboats. As if to prevent them from wandering into the Maldivian capital, MalÃ©, just an island hop away. The perception that the Maldives archipelago is just a collection of world-class resorts has therefore stayed.
Thankfully, my guide Firdaus is enthusiastic and launches into the history of MalÃ© no sooner than I am ejected off the resort speedboat and onto the capital city. The contrast is indeed compelling and you begin to see why no one wants you to spoil the illusion of Maldives as an ultimate utopia.
Where at the island resorts one is accosted by soft white sands, clear blue waters, tropical trees, coconuts with umbrella-topped straws and scented damp towels, here in MalÃ© there is just one concrete wall of buildings. Below me, among the fishermen’s detritus, float Coke and water bottles. MalÃ©’s architectural element is clearly expediency not aesthetics. The idea seems to be to pack as many buildings as close together as possible on the space-crunched island.
Paucity of space is also why there is a roar of bikes and mopeds on the roads. All solidly stone-paved, the streets are narrow and the two-wheeler is the transport of choice. “If I invite you for a coffee and you see a Maldivian woman and you say, I like her, can you arrange a date with her? The first thing she will ask is ‘Do you have a motorbike?’ The first condition is the bike or else bye-bye,” says Firdaus.
But the 1.7-km-long and 1-km-wide island can as easily be traversed on foot. Every monument, museum and mosque is just an arm’s length away. We first visit the Old Friday Mosque. This once-upon-a-time Buddhist temple was turned into a mosque after the Moroccan scholar Abu al Barakat travelled to Buddhist Maldives and converted the Sultan and with him the country to Islam in the 12th century AD. The mosque was renovated three times, the last in 1656. It is an important relic of history for all Maldivians. The door and window frames are made from corals. Wooden beams supporting the roof are engraved with Koranic verses but they still hide untold stories of a 1,400-year-old Buddhist past.
It is only in MalÃ©, the mercantile and political centre of the Maldives, that you get a glimpse of Maldivian culture of any kind. You may see the Maldivians at the resorts’ sand-floor receptions deal coolly with the booking queries of bikini-clad Europeans. But outside the resorts, Maldivians are conservative and intend to stay that way.
In fact, until the 1980s, the government assiduously kept the world of tourists and the world of locals apart, making the inhabited islands a tourist no-go area. But tourism is the Maldivian economy’s backbone; therefore some concessions were made, in the form of the modest guesthouses that have now been allowed to spring up not only in MalÃ© but in many inhabited islands for backpackers and off-the-beaten-path travellers. The usual tourist debaucheries of wining, dining and bikini-sunbathing are all right as long as they are cordoned off from the locals.
Every Maldivian is not only a Muslim but also a Sunni Muslim. It’s a paradise where no other religion can be practised. There are over 35 mosques on the tiny island of MalÃ© itself. We visit many of them, including the biggest, the Friday Mosque, which pierces the MalÃ© sky with its gold-plated domes.
There is a museum, which is a steel-and-glass building, a gift from China, built in 2010. Among other things, it houses old cannons, pictures of important political events and a replica of the pen used to sign the Maldives ‘Declaration of Independence’ from the British Empire on July 26, 1965.
MalÃ© is crowded with a population of 100,000 people. It’s a tiny landmass that rises barely a metre or so above the surrounding ocean. But this is a mere statistic for the Indian traveller accustomed to a sea of people in everyday urban India. In comparison, MalÃ© looks empty. “People here take care of their skin and don’t like coming out in the day. They come out only in the evening for shopping,” explains Firdaus.
The fish market at the jetty is a place where merchants from all over the Maldives congregate to sell vegetables and fish. I meet Suresh, an Indian fisherman from Chennai, who says he is not happy with the day’s catch. “The weather is not good. We spent three days out in the ocean and only got this,” he says, pointing to a pile of what looked like a good haul to me. There are many Indians like him in MalÃ© who earn over $300 a month and visit home once a year.
MalÃ© also has a beach, which is monopolised by children. They are minded by Maldivian women, some of whom wade into the waters after their wards, fully clothed.
Not fully accustomed to tourists, MalÃ© offers little choice for souvenir hunters. But there is almost everything to suit almost everyone’s palate and, if you like Thai food, you are in luck. MalÃ©, for some reason, has many restaurants catering to Thai taste buds.
But our guide took us to what he called a local ‘hangout’ joint–the Aioli Restaurant, which seemed more popular with the locals for the shisha than its food. The restaurant did not serve authentic Maldivian food but it was a welcome break from the European-dominated cuisines of the resorts. For example, the smoked salmon served there in the breakfast buffet was imported all the way from Belgium, the hostess on duty told me. We went with the recommendation of a skittish waiter and ordered the Hot and Sour Prawn Soup. The soup was great but very spicy. But that’s because you are an Indian, said Firdaus. “They adjust the chillies according to the country you are from,” he said, slurping comfortably on his soup, shisha smoke from another table whirling about his head.
From the restaurant and just about at any other street corner in MalÃ©, huge posters of Mohamad Nasheed, the popular ex-President sentenced to 13 years in jail, and who recently got asylum in Britain, stare down at you. With him the message of global warming rings ever louder for every Maldivian and the world at large. Should global warming continue at the current pace, there will indeed be nothing in MalÃ© in the next two decades. Barely two metres above sea level, MalÃ© and all the other 1,200 or so inhabited and uninhabited Maldivian islands will simply go underwater forever.
The only direct flights from India are from either Thiruvananthapuram or Kochi. Travellers from any other Indian city will have their flights (on Air India or SpiceJet) routed through one of these cities. SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka offer connections from India via Colombo for about the same price or foten better and about the same number of flying hours.
Visitors don’t need visas to enter the Maldives. Citizens of all nationalities are given a 30-day free visa on arrival, provided their passports are valid for six months, they can show a return ticket and proof of funds or a resort booking.
WHERE TO STAY
In MalÃ© you pay a fraction of the tariffs charged by the island resorts. The guesthouses here, however, have most amenities including air-conditioned rooms, wifi and television. Central Boutique Inn is a 12-room boutique hotel situated in the heart of MalÃ© near the People’s Majlis, which even has a rooftop swimming pool (from Rs 5,000; centralboutiqueinn.com). For a still cheaper option, one could try the 11-room Surf View Hotel, unusually for MalÃ©, situated by the sea (from Rs 3,000; surfviewhotel.com).