I HAVE A FULL DAY before leaving the Maldives and half of it I spend exploring Male once more. I plan on exploring an island near the capital in the afternoon, and it gets down between Hulhumale and Villingili, both actually administratively part of Male. I eventually decide on Hulhumale, mainly because it’s much closer to the airport (a 20-minute bus ride). It’s raining and I need to be at the airport by 5 pm to check in.
After leaving my backpack on the airport baggage lounge, I ride a bus at the stop just outside the airport, and in a few moments I’m riding on it along a wide highway with nothing but sand to the horizon on my left and the ocean on my right. In a few minutes, we reach Hulhumale, which looks not quite like the capital city, but also not like a typical Maldivian island. The roads are paved instead of tiled like in Male, and the overall atmosphere is of a suburb.
I get down at the stop at the third bus stop, which Google Maps tells me is near the beach. I follow the directions on my phone and eventually reach the beach, which is quite pretty considering I’m in a city, though the place feels desolate except for a few souls other than me. Probably a lot to do with the rain and the fact that it’s low season.
Hulhumale is actually an example of the resilience of Maldivians and a sobering reminder of the problems faced by a tiny island nation. The island is a huge reclamation project started in 1997 to address population and housing issues in Male. It was officially settled in in 2004, and the second phase of the reclamation began in 2015.
Today, Hulhumale is an alternative base for travelers from the hectic and cramped Male, with many hotels and guesthouses springing up in the last couple of years. The island is also envisioned to be an environment-friendly one, with large patches of greens encouraging people to engage in various outdoor activities. Indeed, it would have been a pleasure exploring its park were it not for the rain.
Shortly before walking back to the bus stop to return to the airport, I stop by a local teashop to eat. A couple of slices of pizza catch my eye. I order them along with a bottle of water then sit down in a table. Minutes later, a group of young men from a nearby construction site joins me, sitting at the table next to me. A man from the kitchen brings out a tray of what seems to be like a fresh batch of samosas and places it behind the glass counter.
And as I eat surrounded by locals chatting in their local language, I am reminded of the irony of traveling in the Maldives. Almost all tourists in this country exclusively stay in their resorts, barely aware that there is a nation outside of the paradise they are in. Sure, the luxury, the buffets, the spectacular beaches, and the magical underwater world are all worth raving about, but it almost always ends there.
More than these, however, the Maldives is a nation. The Maldivians are a proud and independent people who love, laugh, talk about current events, go to work, learn in schools, get sick, and eager to know about the world. It’s hard to find information on these when looking at a number of travel blogs about the country.
Of course, I can’t discount the country’s political climate which has polarized the population (a situation I can especially relate to given the political situation in the Philippines). But having the opportunity to get close with the locals, I get to experience their smiles, learn about their complex social fabric, and the archipelago’s unique geography that largely shaped a people’s culture and history.
This is what makes the trip more rewarding. More than the indulgences on a luxury island, I get to be a witness to the Maldives’ transition to an uncertain future.