A tiny spot of paradise can be yours for a moment in time, when you take your pick of 1190 islands
There is something peculiar to travels in South Asia. And that is, "where you from?" Whether it is India, Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh, you cannot escape the ubiquitous question. Further afield, is the Maldives. Here, too, one is pestered incessantly on the basis of one’s own appearance. You cannot walk 10 steps, or turn a little to the left or right, that is, without being asked. At times mumbled out almost inaudibly, at times asked with audacity, and then there’s the worst one -- the persistent inquirer. You could be saying something perfectly unrelated, like, "I’d like to have the coconut water please." Right. "Where you from?" Followed, after the tiniest pause by, "India?"
It can be fun to call their bluff, or one can be downright rude; depending on the number of times that day one has tried to avert giving a response, the mercury reading at that time, which can also be coupled with how many hours one has walked thus far.
All of this can add up to giving the answer best appropriate; "Why are you asking, I haven’t asked you that?" or, "That’s a rude question to ask, you shouldn’t ask tourists that." Or, "Don’t worry about where I’m from." Well, okay, rude responses in varying degrees, to a question that is intrusive.
And that is something one does not want on a holiday. I’ll be happy to enjoy my vacay with privacy and total anonymity please. I want to disappear into the crowd. Not that the Maldives are crowded. Still. You see, after all, I come from Pakistan, and anonymity and privacy are what I travel abroad to seek.
In the Maldives, particularly, I want my peace of mind served with endless stretches of cerulean-turquoise-azure, in the form of sea and sky, and pale white sand on the side. I can sit here day after week, getting my fill of all this. But as it happens, I have just about a week.
It is very strange indeed, that in this nation that should be so very used to the tourist influx, they are still so inquisitive. And the Maldives is all about tourism. Not that you could tell that from the very basic airport, with the endless immigration queues -- they are nice to us, the green Pakistani passport also gets stamped with a visa on arrival. So basic, indeed, is the airport that it is quite a shock to get off the plane into the searing sunlight, and have to walk to the airport building. They could give a warmer welcome to those doling out moolah at eye-watering amounts for the super swanky 5, 6 and 7-star resorts. They could, I also feel, be kinder to their own folk; there is very little evidence of a trickle-down effect of the benefits of a flourishing economic model. But more on that later.
Male, the capital city of the 1190 islands, is very unpretentious. On closer look, that is understandable, for the island of Male, spanning 1 kilometre by 1.7 kilometre has a population of around 100,000 jostling for standing space. Whereas the other 1189 islands share the rest of the populace. By one estimate, in January 2017, the total population was put at 373,522. Male is crowded, chaotic, colourful … and it disappoints. Do not expect it to be representative of what lies out there.
What lies out there is one of the world’s most sought-after beach holiday destinations, the stuff that dreams and screen-savers and postcards are made of. What lies out there are the 200 or so islands out of the 1190 that are inhabited. Some of these are called the ‘local islands’, the others are the resort and holidaymaking islands. And these are the two Maldives, two sides of the coin. But there is the third Maldives as well.
Between Male, its neighbouring island Hulhumale -- a 25 minute ferry commute away, and a trip to the Cinnamon Dhonveli island resort, I got to see all three Maldives. Hulhumale is what could be called the ‘suburbs’ of Male. A reclaimed island, Hulumale was developed by the government around 2002 as a pre-emptive measure to cater to future land shortage on Male. Hulhumale is new, still being developed in phases, clean, and quite the epitome of peaceful coastal living. Carefully cultivated greenery lends a serene aura to this quiet island. Public and private transport impresses -- the huge red buses look inviting enough to hitch a ride to nowhere, just for the experience. After all, how lost could you get on a small, sparsely populated island -- 1 kilometre by 2.4.
And then there are the mopeds. There is nothing unusual about these mopeds. Except that women drive them. Hijab-clad women whizz around doing groceries and chores, and socialising in the evenings. It is such a reassuring sight to see women walking the streets and riding mopeds into the night. A sense of calm prevails, notwithstanding the recent political hiccup and state of emergency that was imposed.
This nation of Muslims is also very educated: adult literacy stands at 98 per cent in this archipelago, which is not only the smallest country in Asia, it is also the world’s smallest Muslim country. Interestingly, the Maldives constitution, written in 1997, states that citizens must be Muslim. Core facts do not cease to astound. The vast expanse of sea-sand-sky that I gaze endlessly upon during my stay in the Maldives is not just gratifying to the senses, fact is, 99 per cent of the territory that comprises the Maldives is water.
This is also the lowest-lying, and flattest country in the world. Best experienced practically in the form of a boat trip to a sandbar. Sandbars are the other-worldly dots on the surface of the ocean where, as the sea blends into the sky, time slows to a crawl, and you can feel the weight of each minute as it ticks away. This is the closet that one gets to being marooned on a desert island.
The boat trip I took to a sandbar also included in the day’s itinerary a trip to what the locals call a local island. What, you may ask, do they mean by local island? Surely all the islands are local. No, they aren’t. This concept is somewhere along the lines of all men are equal but some are more equal than others. Paraphrased as all islands are local, some more local than the others. It is intriguing to me that they want to show us their local islands; for the locals live in a basic and simple manner, nothing to flaunt there.
I got a rather discomfiting feeling from being trotted around the local island that our tour boat operators chose to show us. There was nothing much to see, really, apart from a few old houses and tiny lanes of more houses. It was very hot, and dusty, and children scampered around in the dust, women sitting around outside their small homes. It felt very intrusive to walk through their day. Tilawat of the Quran could be heard from some of the open doorways of the tiny homes, in the lanes we meandered through.
Conversely, the islands that have a resort on them make you feel so very welcome, as if you were born to live there. Or at least the world of a ritzy resort and its staff does. These are craftily constructed worlds that entice… they are meant to. There is a deep, deep sense of calm that you enter, you know, the kind in which you leave your worldly worries at the door, um, on the speedboat, before you step ashore. They are, indeed, islands…
And then there is the third Maldives. Everywhere you go in the Maldives, you notice the influx of Bengali workforce as well as labour force. Construction site workers are mostly Bengali, servers and staff at restaurants and hotels include Bengalis, shop attendants are likely Bengali if not local. And so on. The equation works thus that while Bangladesh is overpopulated, the Maldives is underpopulated, so that is where there is work to be found.
But what is really the third Maldives? To me it is the face of Mohammed. Mohammed is a server at the hotel we stayed at in Hulhumale. He is 17, perhaps 18. He’s been working there for the last three years, and supports his family back home in Bangladesh. It will be another two years before Mohammed will go to visit his home, five years after he came here. Why is that? He speaks little English, despite having worked at a hotel for three years, so I can’t get prolific replies from him. Plus, he is reluctant, I think, to give me a precise answer. Perhaps it is his contract that says so, perhaps the cost of the ticket is too much of a luxury for him. But the haunted, faraway look in his moist eyes when I ask him these questions stays with me.
Besides the 99 Bengalis that I encounter, there is also Tariq -- making that 99:1. That is just a random thought though, not an actual figure. Tariq is from Narowal, Pakistan, and owns the quite popular Tandoori Flames Café. It is good to know that he, at least, is doing well financially, and says the move has been lucrative for him. His palak-paneer and roti is certainly good, so I can see why. It is this situation, only, in which neither of us needs to ask the other, "where you from?" We spot our own kind across eight dining tables.