When you think about the Maldives, what kind of images come into your head? White sandy beaches, pristine coral reefs, tranquil deserted islands possibly? Not quite, so far.
I arrived late last night, on a surprisingly large aeroplane which stopped off on its way to Dubai. Instead of a taxi rank, the airport frontage was lined with a ‘luxury yacht rank’ as the airport is on it’s own island, one of 1,192 that make up the Maldives. Ever the frugal traveller, I opted for the local ferry shuttle to the capital island, Male.
This morning I had my first chance to explore. If it was the colonial charm of Isla Mujeres, or the relaxed Rastafarian vibe of Caye Caulker (off the coasts of Mexico and Belize, respectively) that i was expecting then I couldn’t have been more wrong.
This is a concrete kingdom, rising abruptly and artificially out of the crystal clear Indian Ocean, and there’s no beach, coral or coconuts in sight. Instead of the occasional old man sauntering along a sandy path on a rusting push-bike, there are enough cars and scooters to rival Rome or Ho Chi Minh city, and they provide the soundtrack to this bustling, burgeoning breeze block. Add in the humidity of Sri Lanka, and rubbish levels of almost Indian proportions, and you have Male.
My initial reaction was one of ‘What the hell have you done to this once tranquil spit of sand?’, but it does make a little more sense when considered in more depth. Male is the capital city of a country, and sits on an island measuring just over 2 square miles. Therefore, the government ministries, schools, landfill sites, sports stadia, factories, sawmills, cemeteries, petrol stations, ship yards and even a water treatment plant are all necessary and understandable eyesores. A third of the population live here. Imagine how horrendous London would look if it was packaged into a couple of square miles, so really it’s no wonder Male is how it is.
I actually like the place too. It has a typically Indian, subcontinental buzz about it, and most importantly, it’s real. It isn’t a tourist hole which simply exists to cater to the needs of Westerners, I’ve not come across an overpriced coffee, a fake football shirt or even an Internet cafe yet. It’s full of real people, going about their daily lives, going to work, attending school or university, picking up the essentials from the corner shop or praying at the mosque. I’ve seen 4 other white people so far and I’ve walked around the whole island.
Male doesn’t produce anything, everything has to be imported, and worryingly, even the local markets are running out of fish and so have started selling frozen, imported fish. It is also the hub which makes this country tick, the drop off point, storage facility and transport centre which caters for all of the honeymooning couples on the outer atolls. Without Male, all of the picture-perfect beach huts wouldn’t exist, and without all the tourists Male wouldn’t need half as much concrete.
I’m excited to see whether the other areas of the Maldives match the postcards more accurately, but I’m not disappointed that Male doesn’t. It has given me a concrete-coated glimpse of real life in a compact capital city, and for that I’m grateful.
On a side-note, a big thank you to Ashfam Ahmed and pals for hosting me in Male, and for providing an authentic and knowledgeable insight into Maldivian life.
I’m currently living the dream, exploring the world. I hope that one of my scribblings or one of my photos inspires at least one person to visit a new place and live their dreams too!
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