Travelling grants license to our natural curiosity and bestows upon it some degree of legitimacy. This travel-inspired curiosity is like walking past an eye-catching shop window display and being drawn to the carefully laid out accessories and quirky mannequins. The best displays should first tell you a story, then tug at your heart strings and ultimately (should) get you to enter the store and actually buy something. Travel should allow our curiosity to thrive and that’s what happened to us during our visit to the Maldives.

 

Malé here we come!

Having read a few bits and pieces about Maldivian history, of particular interest to us was the fact that Maldivians (probably descendants of the Sinhalese people in neighboring Sri Lanka) had first practiced Buddhism before becoming an Islamic nation and then a British protectorate. We were curious to see how these significant transitions had influenced the language and culture and were eager to validate the mental pictures that had begun to develop in our minds.

Kurumba Maldives

After spending two days pottering around our resort (see previous post here) doing not very much, curiosity soon got the better of us and so we booked the daily excursion offered by our resort to Male, the capital city of the Maldives. Malé island was located 6.5 Kilometers (approximately 4 miles) from our resort and was easily reachable by speedboat within 10 minutes. While we didn’t care much for being close to the bustling capital, it was convenient not to have to travel too far to reach it.

Malé Maldives

We made short work of our champagne breakfast, lathered ourselves with sufficient sun screen and joined a small group at the jetty. The resort speedboat made quick business ferrying us across to Malé for $10 per head. Soon we arrived at the northern waterfront of the island and assembled outside the imposing Headquarters of the Maldives Police Services. There, we were introduced to a group of young men who would be our guides on the walking tour of the city. We were quickly split into groups, with Eulanda and I ending up being the only two placed in the care of a young man named Rasheed*. Tall and lanky with the typical handsome Maldivian bronzed look, his spiky hair, worn sneakers, dark sunglasses, silver neck chain and hipster checked shirt placed him in his late 20s. Despite his youthful and unassuming look, his eyes suggested that he was older than his years. Although he didn’t tell us very much about himself, he mentioned that he was born in the southern atolls but had lived in Malé for over 20 years.

For those curious enough to make the trip across, here is a bit of trivia about Malé. For a country that is made up of small islands, Malé is as big as it gets with a population of approximately 135,000. Although there are taxis available, paying for a cab ride is a waste of money as it is possible to walk around the island in 45 minutes. Apart from walking, motorcycle transportation appears to be the norm. Like bicycles in Amsterdam, so it is with motorcycles in Male. The city literally swarms with them. At traffic lights, they hum like angry bees waiting for a signal to attack. Rasheed told us it costs a whopping $8,000 to own one here. Everyone seemed to have one.

Malé Maldives

HDYTI Tip: If you do decide to make the trip across to Malé, don’t bother with a tour guide. Get a map, mark off the points of interest described below and wander around at your own pace.

 

Simmering tensions

After separating from the other groups, our guide took us on a circular path beginning with the President’s office. We could have walked right past it but for Rasheed who pointed out the plaque describing it as such. The parliament building a few meters away (called The People’s Majlis) was a slightly more impressive affair where, according to Rasheed, the country’s first constitution was written. He informed us that for every 4,000 Maldivians, there is one member of parliament with all 26 atolls represented.

You hear about the Maldives being a Muslim country but you don’t actually see much (if any) evidence of it on the tourist resort islands. In Malé however, there is visible evidence of ancient and modern day Islamic architecture, culture and traditions. As we walked past the mausoleum of an ancient Sultan, Rasheed explained that Islam practiced in the Maldives is of the moderate kind, with no enforcement of the harsher aspects of Sharia Law.

Next to the mausoleum was the President’s official residence (known as Muliaage), a rich mix of British colonial, Islamic architecture and tropical colours all rolled into one. As we peered through the locked gates of the property, suddenly the ear-piercing sound of approaching sirens shattered our soliloquy. Soon, an officious looking motorcade approached complete with motorcycle outriders clad in police gear. Although their presence had been clearly announced, the outriders still felt the additional need to ensure everyone stood out of the way (including regular traffic), clearing a path and allowing whoever was inside the main vehicle to affirm their feeling of self-importance. The flurry of activity made us think it might be the president but Rasheed implied that it was probably someone of lesser position. What struck us the most was the sudden escalation in tension (evident on faces around us) that seemed to fill the air and which lingered moments after the motorcade had disappeared.

President's residence Malé Maldives

 

Autocracy and artistry

We knew nothing about the politics of the Maldives before our visit. However, our visit to Malé proved to be a glimpse into life in a police state. As we walked on from the Muliaage, Rasheed gave us the first hint of the ugly underbelly of this paradise nation. In hushed tones, even though chances of anyone eavesdropping above the cacophony around us was very slim, he pointed out that recently there had been a number of public protests followed by sporadic violence and arrests. This country was in the middle of its worse political unrest for decades and we had walked right into it.

Although the streets were calm, we spotted posters screaming “Free Nazim!” We pressed further for details and Rasheed hesitantly explained that the democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed had recently been ousted from office by a rich and very powerful dynasty that had ruled for 30 years. President Nasheed later ended up in prison, jailed for 13 years, under questionable circumstances. We later found out that the first democratic elections in Maldives only took place in 2008 following years of what was widely adjudged to be a brutal dictatorship. What now passes for government could be described as a mix between democracy and autocracy. Beauty clearly had its thorns. We didn’t push for further details as Rasheed seemed uncomfortable discussing the subject.

Our tour continued to the ancient Malé Friday Mosque (Hukuru Miskiiy) which dates back to circa 1658 and according to Rasheed is one of the best preserved examples of early Islamic architecture in the Maldives. The walls of the mosque are made out of coral, bearing beautiful and intricate carvings which speak of great craftsmanship from an era long gone. Weathered windows and doors made of heavy exotic and beautifully carved wood opened to the inner shrine, inviting us in. Unfortunately, as we needed special permission, we were not allowed to explore the inside. The afternoon sunshine reflected off the sundial in the courtyard. In the corner was an overgrown grave yard. Rasheed pointed out the different sizes of the coral tombstones; the smaller stones signifying where children were buried. The graveyard signaled a finality to our visit and so we moved on.

Old Friday Mosque Malé Maldives

Old Friday Mosque Malé Maldives

 

History left untold

Prior to our trip, I had done a quick search online for Maldivian / Dhivehi literature. I wanted to see how the locals used their own words to capture the beauty and pain, love and hate, hope and despair of living in these beautiful islands. Disappointed that I couldn’t find anything significantly useful, I was naturally interested when Rasheed offered the option of visiting the National Museum for the next hour. Strangely, he also tabled the option of spending the time shopping instead. With the benefit of hindsight, we probably should have chosen the second option. Some publications have tried to give the museum some shine, however what we saw was anything but that.

From the Friday Mosque, we cut through the Sultan Park (recently famous for hosting local protests) and headed towards the museum, walking past a mysterious looking ‘wish-tree’ with brightly coloured strips of cloth hanging from it; a symbol of Buddhist prayers. In a country where Islamic militancy is on the rise, ‘non-Islamic’ symbols such as this are a rare sight.

Sultan Park Malé Maldive

The museum building, a gift from China, is made up of three floors with the upper levels accessible via a spiral staircase. We paid the entry fee of $13 each to the receptionist and Rasheed left us to wander around. The first floor was poorly laid out and contained a number of random, poorly labelled and seemingly unconnected displays. We spotted a random gramophone in one corner and a large lathe machine in another. The general feeling of the place was one of emptiness. We climbed up to the second floor and found a few more random displays including a stamp collection. We later learned that the museum was vandalised in 2012 by local marauders who destroyed ancient Buddhist statues as part of a politically motivated protest against ‘anti-Islamic’ symbols. This meant that unfortunately, there was nothing significant on display which hinted of the nation’s pre-Islamic period.

If it wasn’t already clear to us that the Maldives was a police state, we were soon reminded. We came across an entire section dedicated to the Maldivian Police. This bizarre exhibition included a built-to-scale model of the Police Headquarters building, ceremonial and operational police uniforms, a depiction of a nail bomb explosion from a terrorist attack at the Sultan Park (complete with nails flying in different directions) and looping videos singing the praises of police martyrs.

To add to the already uncomfortable feeling of being in a police state, we soon noticed that we were being followed around the museum by a female security officer, dressed in a hijab. She made it her business to make sure we saw her. The Maldives has a rich history. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the place where we would learn much of it.

HDYTI Tip: It took us about 30 minutes to see everything in the museum. If you do make the trip to Malé Island, as there isn’t much else to see in the city, the museum might be a good place to kill time.

 

Malé fish and fruit and veg markets

We rejoined Rasheed who then took us to visit the Malé Fish Market. Prior to tourism, fishing provided (and is still) a significant part of the national income. The intrepid adventurer, Simon Reeve, in his BBC documentary series on the Indian Ocean profiled the sustainable pole-and-line tuna fishing techniques used by the local fishermen. Most of the sustainable tuna eaten in Britain comes from here. The men mostly live on the sea, spending up to 7 days working and coming onshore only to off-load and restock before heading back out. The harbour was filled with a myriad of fishing vessels of all kinds of shapes, sizes and colours, including Dhonis, the traditional Maldivian fishing boat.

Malé Fish Market Maldives

After a quick stop at the local fruit and vegetable market (which was a feast of riotous colours and aromas), Rasheed took us to a tourist shop (probably owned by his cousin) and then left us to grab a drink at a nearby coffee shop while we waited for the signal to return to our resort.

Our route back to the harbour took us through the courtyard of the stunning Islamic Centre. Designed with clean lines and curves, this very impressive looking building stands out in the Malé skyline and underscores the importance of Islam in the Maldives. Its white marble walls, golden domes and blue patterned minarets reaching for the sky seemed at odds with the tensions evident in the city all around it.

While Eulanda and I currently do not have the luxury of spending weeks or months exploring any one particular place. we always try to ‘get under the skin’ of our host cities or countries; regardless of how short a time we spend there. However, the visit to Malé left us with mixed feelings. We struggled to reconcile some of the difficult images we had witnessed with the magical world we were returning to at our luxury resort. As we walked towards the harbour, we had a feeling that we were leaving the real Maldives behind. Whether we liked it or not and regardless of whatever assumptions we had, this was the everyday reality of the people who lived here.

The Maldives presents so much beauty. However, amidst all that glamour, if you listen closely enough, you will hear the rumbling of its dark underbelly. Hopefully, the volcanic political tensions that simmer within it will not some day erupt and consume this beautiful country.

* Name changed to protect identity.

Have you been to Malé? What did you think? Do you live in the Maldives? How does the political situation affect you (if at all it does)? We would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below please.

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Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).