I ARRIVE AT MAAFUSHI just a little past noon. I took a ferry from Male, then plied the turquoise waters of the Kaafu Atoll for about an hour, passing a couple of resort islands on the way. Just as soon as I alight the boat, I’m greeted by locals asking if I want to avail this island tour or that beach activity. I smile and shake my head, going straight to the south of the island, where I remember my guesthouse is.
I don’t have a map with me, and I have yet to update the map of my phone to my current location, which I can’t do because I’m offline, and the roaming data can rack up the bills pretty quickly. So I walk along under the intense heat of the sun, passing through the narrow dirt roads of Maafushi and looking at the colorful houses. I see only a handful of people on the way, all of them locals. The island may be the largest and the second-most populous island in the South Male Atoll, but at this hour and in low season, it feels like a ghost town.
I find my guesthouse, the Summer Villa, a few minutes later. It’s a charming guesthouse and one of the cheapest in the Maldives, though it’s located just in front of the Maafushi Prison and is quite a walk from the main tourist center in the northern part of the island. I walk in and am greeted by the staff, and after a few minutes, I’m led to my room. I take this time to catch my breath and rest my legs. I plop down on the bed and close my eyes a bit.
IT’S A DIFFERENT SCENARIO from the usual expectation of being escorted from the seaplane to your room with a resort staff carrying your baggage, but that’s the essence of traveling to the Maldives – or anywhere in general – independently. The country has kept off backpackers for decades due to its previous restrictive policies on foreigners, prohibitive prices of resorts, and the lack of transportation between islands.
This changed in 2009, when former President Mohamed Nasheed relaxed foreigner restrictions, allowed the construction of guesthouses in inhabited islands, and established a public ferry network. This for the first time allowed tourists to travel between islands and interact with locals without having to get a permit from the government. Slowly but surely since then, independent travelers have been coming to the Maldives, and while this doesn’t come with tensions between these foreigners’ values and the conservative sensibilities of the locals, it’s safe to say that the country isn’t closing its doors again to those who want to see it outside of its resorts.
While this is a welcome development, the truth is there isn’t really much to do in the country. There are no towns with attractions to keep you occupied for a day. But for those who want no other things but swim, laze under the sun, or explore the Maldives’ underwater treasures while still being in touch with the local culture, being able to do this outside of a resort is a blessing.
LATER IN THE AFTERNOON, just before sunset, I walk to the northern part of the island where the foreigners’ beach is located. The beach is located in a sealed off part of the island where tourists can wear bikinis away from the sight of locals. It’s a peculiar aspect of tourism in the Maldives and a testament to the still incongruous situation between foreigners and locals.
I take a spot at the beach and sit there to wait for the sunset. Then I return to the guesthouse for tonight’s rooftop barbecue buffet dinner.