Maldives : A peek into the local life


Visiting the local islands in Maldives was an experience that rekindled my belief in the simple joys of life. I spent a night each in Maafushi and Gulhi, two islands traditionally inhabited by locals that have only recently started welcoming tourists. Opening up of the local islands is revolutionary and it has created stark contrasts.


On one hand are the island resorts redefining luxury. On the other, there are the simple islanders living their simple lives in tiny islands. It’s the honeymoon capital of the world and also the country with the highest divorce rate. As per UN estimates, the average 30 year old Maldivian woman would have already been divorced thrice. It’s the land where bikinis and burqas coexist.
Both Maafushi and Gulhi are well connected to Male by local ferries and you can get there from Male in under 2 hrs and for less than $2. But be warned, the ferries are infrequent. Research the ferry timings before drawing up the itinerary.
Maafushi is just about a kilometre long and a quarter of a kilometre wide. Yet it is the capital of independent travel scene in Maldives and is already full of guesthouses. It also boasts of  three PADI certified dive centres, water sports facilities and bikini beaches for foreign tourists.

 Maafushi is a great launchpad for Scuba diving, snorkelling or dolphin watching trips. The night fishing trips are also very popular. Guest houses typically charge $25-$30 per person for the fishing trips if they are able to get together a group of 4 or more. This includes a dinner prepared from your own fresh catch and served beachside! Million dollar views of the sun setting into the ocean are also thrown in complimentary.

Catch of the day

I also did a snorkelling trip organised by Crystal Sands Hotel where they took us to three snorkelling points, including the highly acclaimed (and rightly so) DM Giri. Our group was provided the services of 3 well trained and friendly guides and hygienic and neat equipment for $35. Well worth it. However, I recommend you ask around at a few operators before booking your desired excursions to get the best rates. 

Despite having welcomed its first set of tourists barely 7 years ago, Maafushi today is heavily commercialised. To get a real taste of Maldivian life, you have to look a little further still.

Stadium with a view


The tiny island of Gulhi, occupying no more than 1 sq km, is a microcosm. I saw toddlers playing football right next to the turquoise ocean, where a strong kick could send the ball soaring into the blue. A few paces away, there were local teenage girls playing beach volleyball in burqas. Yes, you read it right. Beach volleyball in burqas. Only a few paces further ahead is the bikini beach. It is cordoned off for tourists, primarily European revellers to swim, canoe, snorkel and sunbathe and is out of bounds for locals. Conversely, it is forbidden for tourists to dress immodestly anywhere outside the designated bikini beach.  At 5:30 on an August evening, I had the pleasure of having the beach to myself.
For the locals, evenings are meant for relaxation. The womenfolk gather together to play a few rounds of cards, smoke sheesha and chat up. Some take their small kids to the beach. The men are also back home by then with their fresh catch. Fishing is still the prime profession for locals and a very dignified one. Fishermen earn more than better educated people in the service sector. 


Wall Painting on the premises of a local school in Maafushi


I stayed at Tropic Tree Guest House. It’s one of only three options available on the island presently. When an island guest house in Gulhi has its custom designed toiletteries, you know they are ambitious and are in it for the long run. Ibrahim, whose uncles own the place, manages the front desk with cousin Yaan. Ibrahim gave us a tour of the entire island and even took us home. A long conversation with him taught us a lot about the local culture.

The tiny island having no more than 30 houses has a grand mosque, a health centre and a school and a municipal council. It even has a boat factory where boats get manufactured or refitted and repaired.

Bangladeshi crew of a dhoni singling away in the moonlight


Later in the night I had the good fortune of sitting next to the Bangladeshi staff of a dhoni (local boat) and hearing them sing. The dhoni transports cement from Male to the islands and anchors at the destination island for the night. The crew sleeps aboard. The entire staff had come from Bangladesh, as have many more of their countrymen who staff various guest houses, resorts, restaurants and supermarkets in Male. Some of them had not been home for more than 5 years. They used empty water jerrycans as drums and sang soul stirring folk songs. They sang of the pre-partition days when Hindus and Muslims lived next to each others as brothers, singing Bengali songs together and attending festivities at each others’ homes. They sang of longing for their motherland. A land they left in search of opportunities. The song ends with plans of returning home the next month. They sing it knowing very well that they are not going home. As the moonlight shone on and the ocean shimmered under it, their songs touched a chord inside. Their way of life reminded me that not much is required to experience joy, hope and contentment.
Till we meet again




Real Maldives for the budget of Thailand

What comes to mind when you hear the name ‘Maldives’? Pristine islands surrounded by turquoise waters! But accessible only through super luxe resorts or equally posh liveaboards well beyond the average Joe’s budget? You would have been correct in the year 2008, not anymore. In 2009, the government opened up the local islands to independent travelers, allowing locals to convert their homes to guesthouses. 

Maldives is a tiny island nation and yet many worlds in one. The most widely known version of Maldives is that of the private island resorts which outdo each other in providing obscene luxury to those able and willing to pay. Yet another version is life in Male, the extremely congested capital island and business center that is more chaotic than Bangkok. The least known version is the humble,peaceful life on local islands that is remarkably ordinary and yet fascinatingly extraordinary at the same time. 

I had the fortune of visiting two small local islands – Maafushi and Gulhi that are within 2 hours from Male by ferries that locals use. The ferry from Male will cost you less than $2! Caveat – there is only one ferry on most days and none on Friday. Ferry schedules are accessible at Tiny Maafushi is the capital of the independent travel scene in Maldives and is already heavily commercialized. Almost every home has either already been converted into a guest house or is in the process of being so. Gulhi is relatively quieter, even smaller and has only a couple of guest houses as of now. It is ironic that the very move that has made these gems accessible to common travelers is already jeopardizing the sustainability of their natural splendour. 

The water on the beaches on these islands is the same turquoise colour as that in the resorts. Most of the dive sites and excursions you can access from here are also the same as those you can from the luxury resorts.There is a small difference though.You can spend a fortnight here for the nightly rate you’ll pay at the resorts. But that is not even the real reason you should go here. You should go here if you want to know what ordinary Maldivians are like and how they live. That’s something top of the luxury resorts cannot give you. That’s also the topic of a separate blog post 😊.

Maafushi has atleast 3 PADI certified dive schools and dozens of companies that organize snorkeling, dolphin watching and fishing excursions. All the providers have their offices in a row, close to the ferry jetty. Do ask around for the best prices. If you are keen on getting a glimpse of the resort life and are not very hard up, day excursions can be arranged for $100-$150 pp (rates vary by resort and operator) which will include buffet lunches at the resort including alcohol. Gulhi has fewer options and the guest houses there can arrange most of these activities for you, but typically at a higher cost. 

My advice to every serious traveler is to visit the local islands NOW. Before they loose all semblance of local culture and become tourist traps.Or a new regime reverses the decision to open the local islands to tourism.