The Maldives: beyond the resorts

Take a fishing boat to the real Maldives – the archipelago beyond the resorts, where local culture thrives and the snorkelling is spectacular

3 mins

It was the stuff of nightmares, a scene lifted straight from the pages of a Stephen King novel, a Romero movie. But this was no Hollywood horror. This was real life. Like most days on the tropical Maldivian island of Fulidahoo, the sun was shining and locals had gathered to gossip outside the Hammerhead Shark grocery store. Beyond the sandy strip, lined with trees that sheltered furry fruit bats with inquisitive eyes, children played on the beach. They splashed in the cobalt water that gently rippled against the custard-yellow shores, happily oblivious to the impending terror.

Suddenly, the sand shook and the coarse grains erupted to reveal a human arm thrusting skywards. As its clenched fist slowly opened, a whole zombie-like figure – blood-red, wild-eyed and shaking – lurched out of the ground. Children screamed and fled the scene. I was tempted to join them.

Battle cries burst from over my shoulder. Out of nowhere a sinister army appeared: bare-chested men wearing fox-like masks and grass skirts, and smothered in charcoal. Chanting, they stormed at the now somersaulting monster with long silver swords to a chorus of squeals from the assembled crowd. ‘Slayed’ warriors fell to the ground but good eventually prevailed and the demon was forced deep into the sea, to wild cheers.

This theatrical panto is known as Dheli Maali and tells the story of a demon from the underworld that comes to snatch children. It is part of the annual Eid celebrations, though is believed to have originated in the Maldives’ pre-Islamic days.

“These stories were started by our ancestors and it’s important we keep them alive,” explained my guide Mohammad, over the noise of drums and makeshift maracas made from drink cans containing pieces of dead coral.

Dheli Maali is very much a local affair, a vivacious display that remains unknown to the one million tourists who come to the Maldives each year in search of paradise. Most travel on luxurious speedboats or seaplanes bound for extravagant resorts that have catapulted this Indian Ocean archipelago to dream-destination status.

I had seen that side of the Maldives on a previous trip some years ago – palatial, admittedly, but unpalatable. I left feeling even more curious about this chain of 1,190-plus islands sprinkled some 400km off southern India. Surely there was more to the Maldives than butlers, over-water villas and cocktails around infinity pools? So I ventured back, this time on a budget and on a mission. I wanted to find the real Maldives – the Maldives of culture and history, the Maldives of heart and soul.

Authenticity on the cheap

With this in mind I boarded the Gulshaan, a traditional dhoni hand-built by Maldivian craftsmen and under the command of Captain Ammaday. It would be my home for the next seven days, for a journey to the remote and resort-free atolls of Felidhoo and Meemu to get a taste of local life. Best of all, the whole thing cost less than £1,500. Paradise on the cheap.

I wasn’t the only person on board with the same idea. Also hoping to squash the stereotypes that surround the Maldives, my fellow sailors were an eclectic bunch: a dentist from Cardiff, a florist from the Cotswolds, a supermarket worker from Leeds, a charity worker from Siberia. “Sitting on the beach for a week is not my idea of a holiday,” said another, a retired librarian from Yorkshire. “So the Maldives never really appealed until I discovered you could sail around it without spending a fortune.”

We set off from Male (pronounced Mar-lay), weaving between commuter ferries that connected the capital to its neighbouring islands. As we sailed, small patches of tropical wonder materialised. Scattered all around were golden shores tightly wrapped around interiors of sashaying palms. Ant-like figures strolled hand-in-hand on the beaches towards clusters of private villas, scenes now utterly synonymous with the Maldives.

Tourism arrived late here, but altered things forever. The first resort opened in 1972; today, there are more than 100, plus everything from underwater nightclubs to floating golf courses. But such excess comes at a cost. “Some villages were uprooted to make room for the resorts,” said Mohammad.

As the day progressed, the view became more English Channel than Indian Ocean.

A large swell rocked the boat as we left South Male Atoll – one of the country’s 26 circular lagoons – and crossed open waters. The sea billowed like grey silk; rising up and hissing, it lashed the boat. I retreated below deck to my spacious cabin – one of four – until the water settled and the clouds cleared.

Land had all but vanished aside from two distant specks, floating on the horizon. The sky was smudged with dark oranges and crushed pinks, like a giant Turner painting. As it slowly darkened, countless stars started to twinkle above.

We moored for the night and sat on deck, clutching cups of masala tea and listening to folklore songs in the native Dhivehi language – said to be a mix of Persian, Urdu, Arabic and Tamil. Mohammad gazed out to sea, almost troubled. “There used to be an island over there but it has gone now. I’ve seen two vanish in the past ten years.”

Officially the world’s flattest country – the Maldives’ highest point is just 2.4m above sea level – global warming is a clear and present danger here.

Underwater wonder

The crew were up early the following morning, rushing around to raise the anchor and prepare cheese-and-chilli omelettes. We sailed for several hours until we reached the island of Ambara, where the entire population rushed out to greet us: a welcome committee of two.

Charged with overseeing the scenic picnic spot – small enough to walk around in five minutes and still have time for a cuppa – the pair of resident caretakers were grateful for the company. Well, until one suddenly made his excuses and vanished. Seconds later a loud call to prayer reverberated from the small mosque somewhere within the dense foliage behind. The other caretaker obediently shuffled off to pay homage to Allah.

I, however, remained sprawled on sand as soft as flour, before deciding to wade into the limpid water. Dipping below the surface, I was instantly overwhelmed by the underwater world, which teemed with the serene and the scary. There were fluorescent parrot fish the size of pillows; clams like big pouting lips with midnight-blue interiors that opened slowly and snapped shut; and black moray eels with sharp protruding teeth, thankfully unfazed by the gawping snorkeller above.

The reef – just a taste of the 800 coral types found in the Maldives – fell away to an abyss of the deepest blue. Ahead was a pulsating school of tiny, metallic-silver fish; it split in two as I neared, swimming down around me like a meteor shower.

I wondered whether such wonders were also enjoyed by the first to settle on these islands. Some believe that sun-worshipping seafarers known as the Redin were first to dock here around 2000 BC. In the centuries that followed many others arrived in more dramatic fashion, their vessels running aground on the shallow reefs.

News of these magical islands soon spread, and their location between Arabia and the Indian subcontinent made them a natural trading port. Goods were exchanged, slaves sold and cowrie shells collected to be used as currency in far-flung lands.

The Portuguese set their sights on the islands in the 16th century. Seizing control in 1558, they enjoyed a brief 15-year rule before a revolt led by Mohammed Thakurufaanu, who is still revered by most Maldivians.

Trouble in paradise

The rest of our voyage followed a simple pattern: sailing, snorkelling, swimming and stargazing. We lounged on deserted sandbanks, dined on curries of freshly caught skipjack tuna and hung off the bow when pods of spinner dolphins fleetingly appeared. We shared the water with a giant manta ray, which glided by like a flying saucer. There was just one thing missing: a little local interaction. But that was soon to come.

The thud of smashing coconuts marked our arrival at a small village famed for its rihaakuru fish paste. “Welcome to Dhiggaru,” announced our skipper. “It’s the very best island in all of the Maldives, but I would say that because it’s my home,” the captain laughed.

In the harbour, a man scooped water out of his small wooden boat. From a young age, men here – nearly all of whom enter into a life of fishing – are taught to respect the sea for its might, power and unpredictability.

Dhiggaru’s darkest hour came in 2004 when the Boxing Day tsunami swept ashore. “The island flooded and a baby died,” said Captain Ammaday mournfully. “People are scared it will happen again but we have a warning system in place now.”

But with no higher ground, where do people go? “The mosque,” he replied. “We all gather in the mosque.”

A game of bashi was in full swing. On one side of the frayed tennis net was a team of kneeling women in headscarves; on the other, a lone woman with her back turned to her opponents. In quick succession, she batted balls backwards; one point for every 12 that landed uncaught.

To one side, a lonely lady with a wrinkled face like soft leather sat quietly outside her home of corrugated iron. “Life was very difficult here when I was a little girl,” explained Samfa Adam as she cradled her great-granddaughter. “Our houses were made from coral stones and coconut leaves and there wasn’t much food so we ate leaves. I spent most of my life collecting firewood and making rihaakuru from fish caught by my husband but I’ve had adventures, too.

I went to Male 30 years ago and I still remember standing on the president’s jetty watching the surfers.”

“Did you have a go?”

“No!” she laughed, flashing a big gummy grin while mimicking the actions of a surfer.

The longyi-clad men of the island were elsewhere, busy fixing wheelbarrows, painting coconut-shell drums and playing cards. Among them were fishermen and lifelong friends Mohammad Zahir and Hussain Habib. The pair, who spend every night out at sea in search of tuna, were discussing the news that a new resort was going to be built nearby.

“It’s good news,” declared Hussain. “Our kids will be able to get jobs and we can sell our fish to the restaurants, but it’s a shame that the people won’t see the real Maldives.”

“Most just stay in their resorts and don’t meet the locals,” added Mohammad. “It’s sad.”

Return to reality

Having sailed as far south as uninhabited Fenboa Finolhu, we turned the bow back north. When Male eventually reappeared on the horizon, it signalled the end of our cultural cruise. As its buildings slowly took shape, so too did more and more developed islands sheltering 21st-century hideaways.

Waiting by Male’s harbour, amid a swarm of speeding scooters, was local guide Humam. He proudly led us around the capital, past the president’s waterside office and the country’s tallest structure – a 14-storey ‘skyscraper’ that lords over the other pastel-coloured buildings. The late 1970s saw Male grow. Money poured in from the newly opened hotels, roads were duly paved and land was reclaimed to double the island’s size.

Today, a third of the country’s 395,000 population are squeezed into a space roughly the size of two football fields. Across the road from the tomb of Abul Barakath Yoosuf – the man credited with converting the Buddhist Maldivian king to Islam in 1153 – stands the exquisite Hukuru Miskiiy mosque. Built in 1656 out of wood and delicate white coral, the walls are engraved with intricate carvings and holy passages in flowing Arabic script. Outside, men washed in preparation for prayer close to the small cemetery, where ornate tombstones and mausoleums mark the final resting places of past rulers.

Frantic scenes awaited at the port: shouting fishermen were returning on their boats and shoppers jostled for bargains in the colourful fruit and pungent fish markets. We sought serenity among the frangipani and 200-year-old banyan trees of Sultan Park, where the ruins of the ruler’s palace stand as a quiet reminder of past splendour. But even here we weren’t sheltered from the modern-day reality of the Maldives. Above, another seaplane took flight, arching over the rooftops of Male en route to a world of untold luxury – but one a million miles away from the true spirit of paradise.

Meet the crew

Ammaday Hussain, dhoni captain: “Sailing around these islands is the best way to see the country – it’s the ultimate sense of freedom. I’d hate an office job in Male.”

Bablu Rahman, chef: “I moved from Bangladesh five years ago and I love it. It’s so beautiful and very different from my home. The food is much better, too.”

Suhail Rana, deckhand: “Like many others, I came from Bangladesh in search of a good job. I get to meet so many interesting people while travelling through paradise.”

Nick Boulos is an award-winning writer, he won the AITO Young Travel Writer of the Year award in 2011.

The author travelled with Explore on its eight-day Maldive Dhoni Cruise. The guided trip costs from £1,453 and includes accommodation onboard a traditional dhoni vessel, all meals, snorkelling equipment and international flights. The same trip without flights costs from £795.

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