Maldives Madness: Living It Local

“The island has its own prison!”

says a fairly punctual Mr. Ali as he quotes us an agreeable 25 USD upon meeting us at the airport at 8 AM. Placed in a position of enthusiasm and confusion, a google search of Maafushi showed that it was once called “Leprosy Island”. For one I wasn’t too keen flying back to Hong Kong having a torn shredded limb checked in as excess baggage, but a raging curiosity to the question of “How’s it really like outside a maldivian resort island?” was festering in my subconscious. Whether it was going to be living in a travel magazine article, or an un-aired episode of Man vs. Wild, Mr. Ali was gonna get our 25s, cause adventure right?…

The words “Maldives” and “Budget” normally aren’t associated within the same sentence. Airbnb and Couchsurf easily find themselves bookmarked in your smartphones, both of which would easily refer to Maafushi as a backpacker’s best friend. A solid 29 miles from the capital, one passes through aforementioned resort islands, local boats, and hell-of-a-lot of blue.

Half an hour in what was once a desolate sea becomes filled with the sight of Maafushi’s sole-standing telecommunications tower, as well as an array of local boats and the island’s signature palm-trees in a never-ending ballet in unison with the easterly wind.

Time for some facts. Everybody loves facts. Population? 2500 locals. Maafushi is one of the islands of the Kaafu Atoll and is also the proposed capital for the Medhu Uthuru Province of Maldives. Unaffixed by the name of a typical resorts group, the island is governed by an elected Island Council. Yes, despite its infancy, democracy prevails in Maldives! Oh, and the island is no more than 260 metres wide, and almost 1.3 kilometres long, so an aunt’s bestfriend’s son’s cousin twice removed, is potentially neighbors with his mother’s uncle’s grandson. Small world indeed. End of facts. We were picked up by a Mr. Shah, home-grown from the island, and singlehandedly debunks all the fishy rumours of the archaic diseases.

First five minutes into the island and expectations reminiscent to Centara’s or Club Med’s are out the window. However, motorcycle tracks on the unpaved sandy roads, hard-labour workers pushing carts by the 35 degree unforgiving heat, and a barrage of flip-flop bearing backpackers indicate a well-oiled machine of a natural local island. Walking ahead and quick glance at left and right from the pier and you’re presented with a joyful sight of the local watersport thrill. Locals? Absolutely lovely, polite, and always ready for any photo-opportunity. With such a calm atmosphere in contrast with everyone’s festive demeanor, Maafushi’s set off for a good start in anyone’s Maldivian must-visit list for a quick fix of “home” much friendlier to the wallet.

Still being led by the ever-so accomodating Mr. Shah we make our way to the end of the first block passing through more guesthouses, a playground, and the covered Whiteshell Beach exterior. Mr. Shah mentions that the Maldives remains one of the last few countries remaining with a 100% Muslim population, so he reiterates the undying importance of dressing the part, hence, placing a literal barrier between the local muslim lifestyle and the foreign bikini bottoms.

A couple blocks more and we found ourselves greeted by Maafushi’s currently best hotel, Arena Beach, currently expanding with more rooms, and always improving their welcoming garden reminiscent of Eden, sans fruit bearing trees and hostile reptiles. They do have a couple local cats to refill one’s quota for affection as the staff deliver generous refreshments.

Reviewed by reputable websites such as hotel.com, Agoda, and TripAdvisor, Arena Beach maintains topnotch ratings and a myriad of positive reviews, evident not only from the cheek-to-cheek grins of those who avail of their affordable luxury, but satisfied stomachs from day-trip Maafushi backpackers as well. Quick lunch and afternoon tea sets can be availed for 12 USD, complete with some Vegetable Soup for the soul, some hearty grilled chicken, classic juicy chips (french fries for the american grammar nazi) that definitely doesn’t disappoint, and your choice of tea (Mom not included in 12 USD, although the free WiFi in the lobby is).

It was in our lunch experience that we were treated with a pleasant surprise with faces from home. Amidst the culturally diverse and wonderfully courteous staff of Arena Beach are two filipinos, Sir Ron and Sir Ethel, both of which going out of their ways to make Mom and I feel like home in an island literally in the middle of the indian ocean. Sir Ethel is this good-looking lad with tray of delectable drinks imbued with sugary strawberry extract and youth. Born and bred in the island of Aklan in the Philippines, Sir Ethel bore a natural unbreakable connection with white beaches and nostalgic waves, providing him with a sense of home in Maafushi. He mentions his story of working in Sri Lanka, and having been employed through a friend, Sir Ron, upon learning of a lucky job vacancy in the island. Through him we found a naturally-instilled humility, inculcated with the filipino-hospitality we pinoys carry much pride for.

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Once Sir Ethel’s shift ended, Sir Ron, the pogi man with a massive smile was to take his place in the front of the house. Similarly, Sir Ron had an interesting story. Having a sister who worked in Male, he was presented with a graduation gift of a trip to the islands of the unreal tints. Upon landing, he instantly found a connection with the archipelagic wonder. As if the stars aligned to his favor, he happened to land employment in the country, easily arranged through a work visa and a transit through Sri Lanka. He was the tourist who never looked back. Inspite of having found home in the Maldives, he never forgot his roots, evident with his incredibly fluent Tagalog, kind hospitality, and a presence so pleasant we had to carry on with a conversation all lunch.

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Aside from having crossed paths and ending up in the islands, Sir Ron and Sir Ethel spoke of a similar thing with regards to their employment. They are treated very well, taken cared for and provided with a good quality of living. According to them, this is also due to the fact that the owners of the hotel are wholeheartedly kind. The owner? Mr Shah himself! That’s right, the man who personally picked us up and opted to tour us around the island was the owner of Arena Beach himself. It was then we knew this man was the epitomé of humility. He begins to tour us around the town proper.

Upon entering the first half of town we are immersed in an extremely laid back atmosphere, wherein every hammock tied up to a palm tree is no less than a seductive escape to slumber. Although underdeveloped, Maafushi bears the necessities required to support the community. A Maafushi School stands not more than a couple blocks from the local hospital, which is also a stone-throw away from the nearest mosque. The streets are wide enough to accomodate two lanes of vehicles,  and the main streets show clear view of one end of the island and the other by its left and right respectively.

The second half of town had enough open space to accomodate your gazelle-like urges to run around freely. An abundance of green flora around embraced the Maldives’ intent to protect, nurture, and maintain its reputation as a natural wonder. The second mosque of three in the island can also be encountered here near the North, of which Mr. Shah claims to be the most grand of them all.  The open field up the north showed a construction site of boats and whatnot capable of following the laws of buoyancy and take people places. Alas, the Maafushi Prison, situated itself on the Northeastern side of the island. Looking more like a farm, the citizens of the island preferred to call the place a “correctional facility”, as it’s more in favour of reintegrating people into society, seemingly proven effective with the virtually non-existent crime rate. Prison’s hiring staff by the way if you want a future in the Maldives. or not.

Following the path around back to the mainroad and we are greeted with the familiar sight of the piers where we started. At this point the 36 degree maldivian heat was ruthless, and what was once a single bead of sweat on my temples had turned into a drenched mess under the sun, my shining forehead screaming “E.T. phone home”. A quick splash at the White Shell local beach was now an absolute necessity. So what was it like behind that fence?

Fairly kept and calm, Whiteshell displayed Maldives’ selling point without much challenge, plus the bent coconut trees that presented the public with postcard material photos of endless possibilities. The beach, moderately populated as it was, was mostly occupied by foreigners, looking into embracing a Kim Kardashian tan, reading a book under a tree, and oddly enough a couple shooting wedding photos. The sand was fair, fine enough to walk through barefoot. The water’s incandescent colours were brought upon by the sun, and was cool enough to stop any impending heatstroke (Beware of couples, as only later did I realise I was a massive third wheel in a literal sea of elopers at some point). I stayed until we were called to the ferry back in Male, enough time to capture this sad attempt of gallantly posing by a tree.

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The clock ticks 4:30, and we are summoned to the lobby of Arena Beach to settle the day tour bills, and escorted back into the ferry pier, our heads held high, and our faces 50 shades darker. The speedboat was similar to what took us there, except this time we had loads more guests from different corners of the world around. A quick start of the engine and Mr. Shah peeps down at our boat, bidding us goodbye personally, only to find out that we were on his boat, and that he was going to be escorting everyone back into the capital as well.

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The day overall went swimmingly, and for 25 USDs, was well worth satisfying my curiousity of how it was like in a local island. Maafushi’s community was very generous and accomodating, and provided no less, if not better service than its private and more exclusive island counterparts. The tourists were a vast mix of people from odd corners of the world, such as our friends from above who were from Australia and Iceland respectively. Although not as luxurious as Taj, nor as exotic underwater as Kuda Bandos, Maafushi is well worth the visit if you’re up for the calm relaxing atmosphere, a wide array of water sports, souvenir shopping, or an overall getaway from the hustle and bustle of the capital. 25 USD for a day’s worth of adventure? C’mon, you’ve seen my footsteps, take yourself to Maafushi!

 

references:

  • All photos and videos are shot by me, and is property of VoyagerZulu
  • Cameras used: Canon EOS 750D; and GoPro Hero 4
  • Massive thanks to Mr Shah, Sir Ron, Sir Ethel, and the wonderful staff of Arena Beach
  • Big Man Upstairs for having such a place exist
  • Email: zacharykeithsantos@hotmail.com
  • Instagram / Twitter: voyagerzulu
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