IT’S MY FIRST MORNING IN THE MALDIVES, but I’m not looking at cerulean waters nor at powder-fine sand. Sea breeze is blowing, sure, and I can hear the waves lapping at the shore, but instead of sauntering along a wooden plank surrounded by water bungalows, I’m walking on a cement platform surrounded by high-rises.
I’m in the capital, Male, and as I make my way to the city’s southern end, I think about the incongruity of it. I’m in a country popular for its luxurious resorts and postcard-worthy beaches, and while it’s not entirely surprising to see a different picture here, it still catches me off-guard. Then it hits me; the Maldives has always been a misunderstood, if not unknown, country. The more I walk the capital city’s streets, the more I come to see more of the Maldives as the country of its people – a largely undiscovered aspect of the country where most foreigners are insulated from the local culture.
I make my way to a football field populated by young boys and a middle-aged man who gives instructions on how to kick the ball into the goal. Beside this sprawling area is a basketball court where a young man is shooting hoops by himself while his two companions sit at midcourt, enjoying their conversation.
A city can be many things to many people, but by most standards, Male is not a tourist magnet. It can be chaotic and overwhelming. Much of its architecture is dull and utilitarian, with the purpose of being more practical than aesthetically pleasing. Beyond the (excellent, it must be emphasized) Old Friday Mosque and the National Museum, there are no must-see attractions. The shops that line the streets are geared more towards locals and have nothing that would send tourists stuffing their baggage with. And the narrow roads may be a nightmare for the claustrophobic.
But when it comes to introducing the real Maldives, Male delivers, as witnessed by the bustle in the city’s central area and markets at the northwestern part. Here, you are with Maldivians on equal footing, able to interact with them not as guests to be pampered, but as a witness to how they go about their daily lives.
The rest of the world is taking notice. Since 2009, the Maldives has relaxed its restrictions on foreign visitors. Whereas previously, tourists stayed only in resorts and were not allowed to mingle with locals in inhabited islands, former President Mohamed Nasheed – a human rights and environmental activist whose nontraditional policies often raised eyebrows among the country’s conservative population – took a more liberal approach in tourism. This has paved the way for enterprising Maldivians to establish guesthouses and conduct tours that allow tourists to see the country outside their extravagant confines. Nasheed was ousted during a riot in 2012 and the country reverted back to authoritarian rule, but there seems to be no going back to those days when Maldivians were sealed off from foreign travelers.
WITH A POPULATION OF OVER 100,000, Male is home to a third of the Maldives’ population. It has long been the center of Maldivian rule, being the home of monarchs who controlled the atolls. In fact, the country is named after the city, with Maldives translating to “the islands of Male” in Dhivehi, the native language. But unlike the laid-back lifestyle elsewhere in the Maldives, the city is throbbing with energy and dynamism, constantly growing that an artificial island had to be created nearby to house more people and buildings.
I arrive at the Tsunami Monument half an hour later. The tall metal structure at the southwestern corner of the island is a moving reminder of the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in several countries surrounding the Indian Ocean. In a way, it also serves as a harrowing message on the vulnerability of the Maldives to environmental dangers, particularly the rising sea levels due to global warming.
Walking north, I reach an artificial beach, which serves as a venue for locals not only to swim without having to leave the island, but also to do communal activities like play, have picnic, and attend music festivals. And while the water is not as pristine as elsewhere in the Maldives, it’s still clean and blue unlike beaches in many other coastal cities. The beach-side cottages are occupied with people enjoying the cool sea breeze, while at the northern end of the beach, two men are casting their fishing rods from a large cottage overlooking the ocean. A large flying fish which they had just caught is on display on the floor.
The tranquility of the ocean disappears as soon as I turn right into a narrow street. The chaotic din is more pronounced here as motorbikes zoom by, and construction noises pierce the air. I zigzag my way through the alleys until I emerge at the northwestern part of Male. I come across the fresh produce market, where a relatively wide range of fruits and vegetables are sold. Nearby is the fish market, dubbed as the soul of Male, where fishermen hoist various catch such as tuna from their boats.
A further short walk along the waterfront brings me to the Republican Square, Male’s main open space. Just south of the park is the Islamic Centre, which also contains the Grand Friday Mosque. The imposing white building stands out from its neighboring buildings and its golden dome dominates the Male skyline,
Further south is the National Museum. The building houses some of the Maldives’ most important relics and is an important stop for those wanting a glimpse of the country’s history. The first floor contains weapons, currencies, royal fly swatters, and other paraphernalia that trace the country’s peculiar history. There’s also a room that lauds the Maldivian police force, displaying some of their uniform and accessories. The second floor features things by the former sultans, as well as a couple of skeletons of large marine creatures found in Maldivian shores. Just before exiting, I stop at the museum lobby where illustrations of the country’s coral-stone mosques are on display.
The eldest of this mosque is the Old Friday Mosque (Hukuru Miskiy), just a few meters northeast of the museum. This small structure was completed in 1658 and was built using hard corals. The building interior contains intricate woodcarvings, including a long one that commemorates the Maldives’ conversion to Islam in the 13th century. Outside, there are small tombstones, some of which are the graves of former sultans. It’s an eerie feeling walking among these, especially now that the sky has darkened.
Rain falls suddenly a few minutes later, stranding me inside the mosque for a few minutes. One of the mosque staff kindly gives me an umbrella, for which I pay him 10 rufiyaas for his trouble. I then go on my way towards the jetty to buy a ferry ticket.
Just before I leave Male, I duck into Newport as rains continue to pour, albeit a little weaker now. This restaurant fronting the northern harbor serves some good international dishes in a minimalist, faux-industrial setting. The menu is in a tablet and features a very extensive range of dishes, from sandwiches to pasta and almost everything in between. There’s also a lineup of beverages from Starbucks. I order hotdog and soda and relish the chilled out ambiance of the place for about an hour before moving on.
Admittedly, Male is not an easy place to love at first sight. But if one is willing to look past its shabby exteriors and see it for what it really is – a product of the Maldivian history and culture – then one already makes the first step in getting a grip of the country. And there’s no doubt that in Male – which is both conservative and forward-looking, vulnerable to the forces of nature but populated by strong-willed residents – the contrasts are at the very least interesting. But while I’m still interested in learning more about Male and its residents, the famed beaches of the Maldives are beckoning.