A few hundred miles southwest of the tip of India, there is a country of small islands called the Maldives. People who have heard of it have usually seen the incredible resorts, the shallow turquoise water, and the wooden bungalows that jut out into the sea from some nearly abandoned island. But what I saw was a different country, one that both struggles against itself and taught me a lot about good ways to live life.
Initially, I was planning on going to the Maldives for just a few days, but I ended up there for the whole month of December, skirting out of the country only a day before my visa was to expire (whew). I had found a round-trip ticket from Sri Lanka to Maldives, which I had only purchased because I had also found a couchsurfing host in the capital of Maldives, Malé.
When you approach Malé from the sea, there is a point when all you can see of the city is the white tops of the skyscrapers barely above the white crests of the waves. The layout of the city makes no sense, reflecting the growth of the island as people filled in more of the ocean lagoon to create more land. The wide canopies of trees hang over the one big boulevard in the country, and tall palms line the smaller streets, all of which are paved with grey bricks. The country is entirely Muslim, and it is formally illegal for a Maldivian to be anything else. I realized after entering the Maldives that the Hindu religious texts I had accidentally smuggled into the country were extremely illegal for me to have, but nobody ever bothered me about it, of course. Except at the resorts, things that are haram, like alcohol, are strictly banned, and I was even asked at the customs desk if I was bringing pork into the country.
But I wasn't thinking about this stuff when I got there, because I was super excited to have landed in what I had heard was the country most like a paradise on Earth. The airport in the Maldives is on its own island, but there is a cheap ferry to the city, where I was going to meet my host at the jetty. I arrived at night, but even under the cheap fluorescent lights of the ferry, I could see rainbows of fish at the bottom of the harbor. My initial host's family owns an apartment building, where I had the fourth and fifth floors to myself, because this area was under construction. My host rented out the third floor, he occupied the second, and his mom, the first.
My host, Ijaz, showed me all around the capital within the first few days, and I got to getting up to explore the warm back alleys by myself too. Mornings in the Maldives are unbelievably slow, especially on Friday, the day for Muslim prayers. I would usually plan to just happen to be walking by my host's mom's apartment around meal times because she invariably invited me in for amazingly good food. Maldivian food uses a lot of coconut and fish and curries and rice, but it's like nothing I had ever had before. Just as an aside, Maldivian food absolutely wins the award for most surprisingly good food, because I really didn't know what to expect, and it really, really impressed me.
Walking around the island and the neighboring islands, I immediately had a good time. But as I would come to learn, many people are bored by life in Malé. During the day, people work jobs much like anything you find back home. When the nights are hot, the city goes outside. The young couples ride their scooters in slow laps around the city on the coastal ring road, which is almost noisier with laughter and chatter than it is with the sounds of vehicles. Older people go for walks, pray at the mosques, or play chess in the main park under the palm trees and the soft orange lights. From after dinner until well after midnight, the young men fill the many cafes next to the sea to drink cheap coffee and smoke cheap cigarettes. It is a one of my favorite cities for reading, eating, swimming, and a quiet life.
By the end of my second day, I had more or less made up my mind to not leave the Maldives for a while. When he took me out to show me the city, my host pointed to the central harbor area where he said boats leave for all over the country carrying the goods offloaded from the international cargo ships. I asked if they ever let people get on the boats, and he said that this happens all the time. That more or less made up mind. I called to cancel my flight and get a refund, and they didn't want to give me one, so I kept the ticket just in case, but I just didn't go to the airport to catch the plane.
Instead, I left for the south of the Maldives after about a week in the capital and a small stint exploring the islands around Male'. A fisherman - fishermen normally get to see a lot of the country, unlike everyone else - had told me that his favorite island was Foamulah, so I learned enough Dhivehi to ask around for a boat there and manage the details. I found one that was leaving within a few days, but when I came back on the day we were to leave, they told me they thought I had been joking. After renegotiating the price (I brought the price down to below 30 bucks for the ride and food for the three-day journey) we left.
That first night when they called me to dinner, we sat together at the door of the engine room to eat. They put out plates of Maldivian fish curry with fish sauce called rihaakuru and some rice, and, as the boat was equipped with only one spoon, they put our only spoon on my plate - many South Asians prefer to eat rice with their fingers. As I sat down, I looked at my food, and I could tell they were all watching me to see if I would actually eat it. So I picked up the spoon, calmly set it aside on the table, and took a handful of rice and properly ate it with my fingers, at which point they all burst out into laughter. Everything was super easy and comfortable for everyone after this. I've actually learned to enjoy eating some foods more with my hands than with other utensils, especially rice, but that is whole other story.
I spent my time on the boat between reading and fishing. I had tea and cookies with the captain in the afternoons - he was a nice guy who spoke English. One of the guys who worked the boat showed me how to fish using their deep sea lines, but all I caught from that was how to say I didn't catch any fish in several ways in Dhivehi. He actually caught a big tuna on the morning of the second day and we ate that for breakfast and lunch. I spent a good amount of time reading on the roof of the boat, which is where people came when it was time to pray. At first I felt awkward and like I shouldn't be there, but I didn't know when people would come up and I couldn't figure out a polite way to leave. So then watching the prayers became routine, and when I heard them come up to prayer, I eventually just kept reading.
On our second night, we reached an island in Gaaf Dhaal atoll called Gadhoo. The fishermen in Maldives make boat loads of money and are the Maldivian cultural equivalent to our stereotype of the investment banker. As we pulled into Gadhoo, some commercial fishing boat refused to move out of the space allocated to us, and there was a short fight on the dock, but it was quickly resolved and we moved into our space. I spent that night sleeping on the roof of the boat because it was too hot inside, and the next day I explored this small island. The captain offered to let me shower at his friend's place, which I did, but I think he offered that more because he wasn't sure if I knew how to take the bucket showers that Maldivians frequently do. I spent the rest of the day reading in a hammock at the white beach under coconut palms. Around two, the pickup truck on the island was making its last drop, so they picked me up on the way back and then we left for Foamulah.
I met more people in Foamulah and had a great time. Some of my friends from the capital let their friends and family in Foamulah know I was coming, so I immediately knew people when I got there. Also, I was pretty good friends with guys who worked the boat, and one invited me over to his home for dinner and just to hang out. One day I was walking up to meet someone, but he called me and told me he would come pick me up, so I sat down on a stump next to the road. Overhearing my conversation, the man who lived in the house next to this invited me in for a kashi, a big green coconut with water in it. And then he introduced me to his son, who spoke great English, so I happily spent the next few days hanging out with him and his friends. They go watch the sunset together everyday.
Foamulah was where I first realized that many people, especially the young people, are extremely bored in the Maldives. Alcohol is illegal here, but people make moonshine in some of the lagoons, and the country has a huge heroin problem too. Actually, many people warned me not to interact with young people because there is a high chance they are addicts. And many young people I met complained about being way too bored. The country itself is small, but the cities are absolutely tiny, and you can't even go visit other cities very easily because you need to take a long, slow boat ride or an expensive sea plane to get anywhere off the few islands with a domestic airport. Many people simply fly to Sri Lanka for the weekend to go shop or drink, but this is obviously very expensive, and even then, some Maldivians get embarrassed if they see other Maldivians at a bar in Sri Lanka. On Foamulah, I saw many people who were driving their scooters while drunk, which is made more dangerous by the fact that most roads outside of the capital district are made of sand and crushed coral. And at least once a week, I saw one person who was clearly really high on heroin. The islands really do look like paradise, but when you grow up there, it isn't that special, and the towns are too small for things like soccer leagues, or theaters, or anything else you might do to pass the time excepting the dense religious community everywhere.
After meeting new friends in Foamulah, I wanted to move on to a city called Addu, which is a collection of islands in the far south of the Maldives. One day I was hitchhiking across Foamulah, and a former island chieftain picked me up, and we got to talking about my plans. He excitedly mentioned that a police boat was going to Addu from where I was staying in the next few days, and so he called the atoll's police commander, who contacted the guy leading the boat, who called me and invited me on the boat. So I got a free trip to Addu aboard a super fast police boat which was going so fast that it often left the water entirely after speeding over a particularly large ocean swell. Also he gave me a ride to the most perfect beach in the world and introduced me to his friend who was having a barbecue there. Anyway, I met a lot of really nice people there.
Once I got to Addu, I took a look at my map and realized that I was in the south of the Addu chain, but the boats to where I wanted to go next all left from the north of the chain. This is about an hour of driving, and there was no bus service in the country, so I just started walking with my bag. I started hitchhiking, and the first scooter to come past picked me up and took me as far as he could without going into the zone where you need to wear helmets, which neither of us had. Then I started walking again, and a police car came up, asked politely what I was doing in the Maldives, and then gave me an amicable ride back to the station with them. I got some more suspicious questions and looks, but not only did they let me go within a few minutes, they took me to the one guest house on the island!
But that place was too pricy, so I went to a cafe to use the WiFi and figure something else out. As the sun was going down, I left the cafe intending to just go camp on the beach that night, but then I crossed paths with a few white people. Not having interacted with another white person for close to a month, and very curious about what they were doing there, I introduced myself. They were part of a university group there, but they took me back to where they were staying and introduced me to the guy who was leading the group. He and I went out to get coffee, and after a good conversation, he introduced me to one of his friends, who had an extra room for me. So that is the story of how I got unbelievably lucky with meeting people and getting to, getting around, and getting a place to stay in Addu, Maldives.
The guy I stayed with, Hussein, is a magistrate down there, and a really nice guy too. We watched movies together, went to the beach, went to the cafes, drove around the islands, and talked a lot about all sorts of things, but especially law and politics in America and Maldives. Misbah invited me along for snorkeling when he, the university students, and fishermen would go. I met the mayor of Addu, and through him and Misbah, I was able to take a free ride on a seaplane from the north of the Addu islands to the south. Once I went with Hussein to the court so he could write an arrest warrant. I meant to leave Addu within a few days, but one condition of my stay in Addu was that it be no less than a week long, so I happily accepted, and ended up there for about two weeks. I even started regularly going to the Maradhoofeydhoo Youth Centre to learn badminton from my host and his friends. I cut out seeing a few islands, but living in Addu was great - I learned way more by staying there for a while than I would have if I left.
But near the end of my time there, my visa was getting close to expiration, so I began making moves to leave. I heard through a friend about a boat that was going back to Malé the day after I decided to leave, so I went there trying to get a ride, but the guy tried to charge me fully triple what I should have had to pay, which sent the message to me that this traditionally dressed man simply didn't want me on his boat. No worries - I called a friend and got a ride on his cousin's boat that was leaving three days later. On the way back to Malé, we stopped at a few more remote islands, I sat out reading and fishing all day, and I even managed to do some writing.
Three days later, when I got back to Male', I felt the most proud I have ever felt on my trip. I had gone to the south and back again in ways that even surprised Maldivians, and everyone agreed they hadn't heard of someone traveling in their country like I had. As I walked from the wharf to my friend's house, I realized I knew how to navigate the nonsensical streets and that I had learned a lot about the Maldives in the past month. I know people there, which of the many cafes is my favorite, where to eat, where important Maldivians live, and I have learned so much about Maldivian politics and culture that I am able to articulate arguments about it to Maldivians. I even met one of the two mayors in the country! I certainly didn't become Maldivian, but man does the country make a convincing argument for conversion.
I got a flight to Mumbai, India when I got back, but I still had a few days to hang out in the capital. I did the usual things, and there were late nights spent at the cafes with my Maldivian friends. One night, we were at my favorite cafe, the Dolphin View, when they started setting fireworks off in the harbor next to the cafe. It was the Maldive's National Day the next day, so I figured that the fireworks were for that. But actually, the ruling party had gotten a major defector from the opposition party, and they decided to launch fireworks with their party's colors - all off ships belonging to and staffed by the Maldivian Navy. But I am thinking of writing a full post on politics in Maldives and Sri Lanaka, so maybe more on that later.
In those last few days before I left, one of my friends asked me what was most surprising about Maldives. I had lived on local islands where nearly all women wear black hijabs, I had scheduled my days around the calls to prayer, and I had learned some of the local language at sea on rickety boats, but the most shocking thing was returning to Male' and seeing the western women wearing bikinis.
Many families, conservative and liberal, do not feel comfortable going to a few specific beaches because of Westerners' public "nudity." Some Maldivians discuss the effect of tourists on their country in terms of assault, specifically referring to what many westerner women wear while swimming. On my way from the jetty to my friend's house, I saw one such westerner who was wearing a bikini, and for the briefest moment I was shocked, uncomfortable, and offended that she would wear something like that in public. Then, after that millisecond passed, I was doubly shocked at having been shocked by a bikini. Don't get me wrong - I do not take a moral stance on bikinis. But I do now understand the feeling of not being shocked and of being shocked by clothing, which is exactly the dual feeling I am trying to get.
An island country is a desert of salt water, the Maldives is unique among Islamic countries for sure, but each Islamic country is unique anyhow. My time in Maldives gave me a much deeper appreciation for what it is like to be from one - the strong influence of religion, the clothing dynamics, the curiosity about what is outside, the boredom, the frustration with your own people, the pride, and the happiness of big, strong families who live together. There were many times when I was uncomfortable, and I learned a lot about the Maldives and about what is important to me through that discomfort. I learned a lot about traveling itself, and I broke out of many shells during my time in the Maldives. As I have many times already, I learned about how little I know, and all the stuff that comes along with cultural immersion, like how to take a bath at a traditional Maldivian water well. But, to be honest with you, what has been most valuable to me was making Muslim friends and learning about life through their eyes. At no point in the past have I been bigoted towards Islam, but now when I hear people blaming the whole of Islam for things likes ISIL and the attacks on Chalie Hebdo, I can think of my friends and roll my eyes much more easily.