The Maldives, to me, has always been a dream (and an expensive) destination. So when I chanced upon an exciting deal, what else could I do but jump at the opportunity?
And jump I did. Alone. Flying solo to a place where most tourists walk arm-in-arm (and sneak a kiss behind your back) is just as funny as it sounds, especially since I chose to visit the capital Male, not some idyllic island of the archipelago. They even made fun of me at the immigration offices in Cochin.
Stepping onto Male, after a short ferry ride from the airport, located on a separate island, gives you a pleasant but distinct shock. The Maldives being an Islamic nation, I was expecting the usual markers – tunics, burqas and beards. Instead, I found young bikers zipping through crowded streets and women matching hijabs with modern outfits, gossiping as they watched a game of football. Older men cheered the players from their hammocks. I might as well have touched down in Goa.
Male is beautiful in a way only a beachside big city can be. Buildings vie for sunlight, the roads are narrow and so intertwined, they fox even experienced drivers. Oh, and everyone prefers bikes to cars, so think twice if you’re planning to travel with an array of suitcases. There are taxis, but you’ll have to wait for them to show up. The most exotic wildlife here are cats, pigeons and the occasional cockerel. Pigs and dogs are not permitted into the country. There are only two dogs in the Maldives! They’re kept at the airport to sniff out drugs – a major problem facing this island nation.
Sight and Sound
There’s plenty to see in Male, but that doesn’t mean you need the constant patter of a guide. Start at Hukuru Miskiiy, the oldest mosque in the Maldives, which dates back to 1656 and flaunts breathtaking woodcarvings, lacquerwork and calligraphy. The structure is made from coral, rare for a mosque anywhere in the world. Relax at Independence Square, nicknamed Little Bangladesh, where migrant workers congregate at dusk for a chat. And be prepared for passive smoking wherever you go. If the rest of the Maldives cashes in on its pristine atmosphere, Male is full of smokers.
But if you really want to do as the locals do, head to the artificial beach next door. Yes, in a country of 1,190 islands and 400 miles of coastline, they really have built an artificial beach in the capital. The idea was to give locals a place to make merry without having to go to another atoll – because the government thinks they take life too seriously!
Also at the beach is the Tsunami Memorial, erected in memory of those who lost their lives in the 2004 deluge that also wrecked much of the nation’s infrastructure. It’s an ideal place to unwind after a day of sightseeing. You can sit by the sea and watch the sun set or go for a swim or surf – so long as you’re appropriately clothed. This isn’t Goa after all.
The highlight of my tip was a visit to the National Museum. Did you know that Maldives was once a monarchy? Or that the traditional dhoni (boat) is crafted from oral traditions, not an instruction manual. Smart, witty Myeha, my guide, had an open personality and a pleasant attitude. She not only gave me a deeper insight into the Maldivian past, but also its present and future.
Show and Tell
Much of Maldivian culture is also evident on the streets. Conver-sations are easy – not just because the locals are fans of Indian soaps – but because they value frank dialogue. But if you’re not the verbal type, the next best social lubricant is football. I had the pleasure of watching Maldives take on Pakistan in a friendly match and was taken aback by the sheer
energy of the crowd.
Male isn’t for rave parties, for celebrity-style privacy, or a solid week of shopping and bargain hunting. But as I heard the call to prayer sounding from the minarets each day, I began to finally feel at peace in a land that is a parody in paradise.
Flights: Male is well connected to India with many airlines offering connections.
Visa Regulations: Tourist visas are issued on arrival and are gratis if you fulfill standard requirements. The duration is at the discretion of the officer.
Currency: Many people had advised me to carry US dollars, saying that the local currency will always go against me in value. I found this to be the contrary. Most local shops will encourage you to pay in the Maldivian Rufiyaa [MVR] and then prices are lower than rounded up in USD$. One MVR is approximately Rs. 3.3. However, souvenir shops and hotels are mandated to charge in dollars. Many shops also welcome the Indian rupee.
From HT Brunch, May 19
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