The Trifecta

After two months exploring the glorious Maldives archipelago, I’ve come full circle in appreciating what the country has to offer. We’d heard numerous accounts from cruisers before us; once in the Maldives, we would swim with manta, dive with whale shark and suffocate from the density of fish in the expansive live corals that surround an infinite string of tropical isles. The bar was set high. From the echo of their voices, I painted happy pictures in my head of the four of us in our Eden in the sea. Keeping the bar high, however, became a bit of a challenge as we discovered that our idyllic isles were either submerged under a thin layer of water or dominated by exclusive five-star resorts. It took us a few weeks, but after a bit of hit and miss we finally saw the side of the Maldives sold in all the tourist brochures, unraveled before us in a trio of delight.img_2075-800x533

We tackled the country in a three-pronged approach in our newly enlightened state: One, uninhabited isles; two, remote villages; three, luxury resorts. Taking all these together, we realized we’d hit the trifecta. Our isolated islets offered not only pristine beauty, but also an opportunity to experience the rich underwater world void of a throng of tourists. Our sleepy villages offered all of us a social wonderland, and we met fast and dear friends in all of the villages we visited. And, at the few resorts that allow our salty paws to mire their impeccable paths, we got a taste of high-end luxury and the ultimate retreat.

Uninhabited Islets

The Maldives offers countless isles and at first the list of anchorages seemed infinite. As we traveled north, however, we found our planning complicated by the fact that the names were impossible to remember. On numerous occasions our conversation back on the boat went something like this: “What did that person tell us? Make sure you don’t miss out on Meeunthibeyhuttaa.” We’d pull the chart out onto the table and scour it for place names. “Here it is! Merengihuttaa. Oh. Look over here, was it Meyragilaa? Or here, Mariyamkoyyerataa. Or Mathikeranahuttaa or Magudhdhuvaa or Mudhimaahuttaa???” Eventually we gave up trying to organize a route and in typical Ātea fashion, we simply drifted northward with a vague agenda. The problem with a strategy based on ambiguity and spontaneity, as we quickly discovered, was the topography of the region didn’t lend itself to just hopping around. Let me explain.

Of the countless islands, they have been counted. One thousand one hundred and ninety, to be exact. To anyone with a few months to explore by yacht, this offers more than enough options. In fact, it was a bit daunting to think of navigating our way through the labyrinth, searching for the best that was on offer. But there are limits, as we soon found out. The depths are great and the drop-offs sheer, the result being that we often found ourselves completely cut off from the islands by design. The land does not gently slope off into deep water but quickly drops from one meter to fifty meters on a vertical wall, making anchoring impossible. We passed idyllic isle after idyllic isle, wishing to park and play. It was evident looking through the clear water what made the diving in the Maldives so extraordinary, with steep walls layered in beautiful coral and stripped and spotted fish, flashing the colours of the rainbow, dancing among the sweeping fans and crooked arms of hard corals. Instead, like a sick child watching out a bedroom window at the neighbourhood children at play, we were repeatedly denied access by depths too deep or shores too shallow.img_0922-800x533

The Maldives consists entirely of islands, grouped in two chains of 26 atolls running parallel to each other. Inside the ring of islands that make up an atoll are numerous coral reefs that make movement through the atoll feasible only in good light and with reliable charts. As we searched within the atolls for an islet that offered a flat patch of sand, surrounded by a minefield of bommies in fading light, there was often the sense of urgency in the narrowing window of time. John spent considerable time prior to departure downloading Google Map images, providing us visual detail of the landscape. This is a process I highly recommend to any yacht destined for these waters. These images became invaluable to us on numerous occasions as our options for a suitable anchorage narrowed in the four-o’clock shadow of the waning sun.

Huvadhoo Atoll: The light is fading and I stand on the bow trying to spot white sand beneath the surface. We’ve sailed along the eastern fringe of the atoll for hours now but it seems the entire eastern side is a sheer drop off, thick in soft and hard corals seen easily through the clear water. I continue to scout ahead. We shared paths with dolphin and pilot whales, the first hunting sting ray and the latter on a slow migration east, but neither are what we search for. I call out for the umpteenth time: “There must be something on the next islet, because [insert new optimistic thought].” Finally, we concede defeat. John pulls up Google Map images of the area and we search the interior of the atoll for a submerged reef with enough depth to set our anchor. We look through the images for a shade of blue just the right hue: Too light and it is just knee deep, too dark and it is beyond the reach of our anchor windlass. Quickly, we find a spot two miles distant. It is this or we are in a serious pickle. Half an hour and we see a patch of sand that stands out like a halo. We made it. We sit on a submerged reef in the middle of the atoll completely surrounded by water. With the anchor set, we listen to the collective rush of a million little silver fish breaking the surface. Something larger hunts them. In the pastel tinted light of the setting sun, it is the only sound we hear as it punctuates the intense quiet that otherwise engulfs us. It is utterly, intensely serene.

We soon discovered that of the thousand islands that appear on our charts, many are submerged under a layer of water or are tiny spots of white sand poking out of the sea. An atoll that looked to be comprised of a dozen islets, two-thirds turn out to be sandbanks set on the outer fringing reef. On many occasions we set our sights on a seemingly suitable anchorage to find there wasn’t anything on the surface to explore or anywhere suitable to set our anchor. Our first few anchorages were no more than a submerged reef in the middle of the atoll, cut off from the beautiful islets that surrounded us. At first this offered seclusion we were keen to avoid, but after realizing the splendor below us we quickly turned our isolation into an opportunity.

Hadhdhunmathee Atoll: The water is crystal clear and the fans that wave just below the surface beckon us. At low tide, the small circle of reef is the size of a tennis court and breaks the surface at its highest peak at low tide. The tide is high now, however, and we have a 360-degree view of endless blue. The four of us leap off the side deck into the water, tog-free and fin-clad, and snorkel in the breaking morning light. From above it feels we are the only beings that exist, but seconds later we cannot see each other through the density of fish that engulf us: every sub-species of triggerfish, surgeonfish, wrasse, unicorn fish, sweetlips, butterfly fish, goby and tang is in attendance. It is like a scene in an animation film, though this isn’t an over-exaggeration of the reef. It exists true in life and in front, behind, below and above us.

Due to the extraordinary underwater scenery and clear water, the Maldives currently ranks among the best recreational dive destinations in the world. As such, charter boats and dive tours abound. Divers flock to the Maldives year-round for the chance to dive with whale sharks, manta ray, and a variety of shark that are well known to the region; for many, live-aboard dive boats offer a great way to explore the area. As an independent “live aboard,” however, we have one complication to our set up: Two dependents too young to dive with us and too young to be left on their own. John and I finally settle on a compromise: Three above and one below.

Felidhe Atoll: We’ve settled into a one up/one down pattern and it is John’s turn on the wall. While John dives, the kids and I tag alongside a mammoth moray eel. Normally they are tucked in deep in a crevice, head wagging in territorial warning. Today we were invited as guests on the hunt. Large, outstretched body gracefully navigates the nooks of the reef while we keep pace alongside as silent partners. Eventually he catches his meal. Eventually we wander our separate ways.

North Ari Atoll: Never before have I watch a reef shark hunt. Usually they swim with slow grace, but today this white tip is agitated, darting erratically beneath me. I hover on the wall, pulling in shallow steady breaths on my regulator hose and watch the shark directly below me. In a flash the shark sinks his head into a hole in the reef and retracts it wildly, thrashing his head like a starved dog with a bone. He caught his meal. I caught my breath.

Rasdhoo Atoll: I’ve often been a pest to the fish but rarely have the fish been a pest to me. Throughout my dive today I had a redtooth triggerfish trying to mate with my head and for forty minutes I tried, unsuccessfully, to shake him. It was quite the distraction as it was a dive brimming with fish life – so thick that at times it was impossible to focus in a specific direction as I tried to capture it all then finally relaxed into the pleasure of being overwhelmed – then suddenly my face was dive-bombed by a sudden flash of blue that blocked everything else from view. A drunk in a bar has never been as indiscrete or persistent. I would have been flattered had it not been for the fact that I was being courted by a fish.

It is a pity I can’t share any of this with you, visually, as John and I jointly destroyed all evidence in a joint venture of camera sabotage.

Inhabited Islands

Back to expectations set, we were told our highlights would come from the water and not from the land. The first was quickly confirmed, the second we were curious to verify. Accounts reported indifference from the local population and to expect a cold eye and frozen glare when going ashore. “The women,” I was told, “are generally reluctant to engage. You’ll make more friends with the fish.” I was disappointed to hear this. After several months of solitude I was excited for time with womenfolk, but no account indicated I’d be making very many friends. “The men are hard, and the women are harder.” Another comment that did not encourage expectations of communal afternoons filled with light banter. My internal social butterfly was going to wilt.

Regardless, I ventured ashore with eyes wide open and was quickly reminded that what you hear is often not what you get. Contrary to reports, the warmth we found from the villagers has been a defining feature of our trip. There hasn’t been a village visited that we’ve not been invited in as guests. We’ve been hosted and we’ve hosted, our social custom and their social custom being traded like much-valued secrets. We’ve learned to accept a type of local hospitality that is very different from our own: guests are fed first and the hosts second. We’ve been taught the secrets of the kitchen: which leaves are eaten fresh for health benefits and which are added to the pot to add flavour. We’ve been offered veggies out of gardens, coconuts from the trees, gifts from the shops and guidance in the streets. The kids have been invited into classrooms and into homes, they’ve been asked on play dates and on picnics, they’ve been included in family excursions to parks and beaches, and they’ve been offered endless tokens of friendship: lollies, presents, toys, cards.

I’ve found in many countries a social barrier that is hard to bridge, no matter how furious the smiles and or generous the gestures. It is most often the result of language barriers and sometimes the result of cultural differences that are too diverse. I’ve felt none of this in my interactions with the Maldivians. I appreciate where words of caution have come from as we experienced some of the less friendly stare-downs that some of the other cruisers encountered. But for the majority, we’ve experienced a warmth and inclusion, not as spectacles but as equals. There is genuineness in the encounters and authenticity to the friendships created and I treasure what they’ve added to our trip.

For the Maldivians, if you aren’t pulling in fish you are courting tourists. There isn’t much otherwise on offer in regard to earning potential in the in the outer islands. The pace of life is slow, a result of both the afternoon heat and a lack of industry. The coral-brick homes are surrounded by compound walls, set on neat sandy streets. Each building houses several generations and provides a gathering area for the constant ebb and flow of family, friends and neighbours that flow through the front door. When we wander ashore in the middle of the afternoon, we wander alone. A few men linger in the teashops and cafés or rest under the shade of a breadfruit tree but otherwise all activity happens indoors. Around four-thirty the streets start to fill and the community socializes from about five to seven, returning to their homes at suppertime.

Kolhumadulu Atoll: We are asked to sit, following a tour of the house and a tour of the gardens. The four of us are seated at the table, with a bustle of activity in the kitchen and a flurry of dishes presented in quick succession. A cat is under the table, a bird in a cage to my back, a parrot presented on outstretched finger. No dog, of course. An old man sits outside on the jollie and somewhere an old woman shuffles about. Mother, sister, and sister-in-law clatter about busily at the stove, the two daughters deliver plate after plate piled high with local fare. My stomach bulges. More food is delivered. At the end of the meal my contribution, a flan, is served to us. So far, no one else has eaten unless in stealth behind the door. No one sits at the table with us and no one other than ourselves appears to eat. We are introduced to visitors that appear in the doorway, a steady stream of neighborly curiosity. At the end of the meal mother, sister, sister-in-law, and the two daughters pull up chairs and sit with us, full of chatter. At the end of the evening we are presented a package, a gift of pre-purchased treats and an odd assortment of vegetables from the garden, and escort us back to our dinghy. It was our first introduction to local hospitality.

This type of evening would be repeated in a variety of homes throughout our journey. Most often men not present, often a bird on a perch, and always several generation of women and children surrounding us.

With a population of 373,000 spread across 200 inhabited islands, each averaging one to two kilometers in size, it might be easy to expect the villages to be a collection of overcrowded townships. This is not the case, particularly as 50% of the population reside in the capital city of Malé. At an expansive 5.8 square kilometers, Malé is conceivably the most densely populated city outside of the Vatican. Furthermore its size is constricted by height. Malé is constructed one meter above sea level with half of its land base coming from the dredged sand of nearby islets. It is incredible to think that in a thousand islands that average 1.8 meters, the natural geography of the entire archipelago is lower than the aft deck of Atea. We sit on our perch like little seabirds and look down at the islands that surround us.

Speaking of birds…

Malé Atoll: I look ahead and my heart skips a beat. For some unaccountable reason the sight makes me think of a mob scene. The quiet street we are wandering down is congested ahead with a haphazard patchwork of steel. A few dozen scooters and half a dozen cars blocked the road, none moving and all piled tailpipe to fender. All heads tilt skyward. Not one person speaks. Finally I notice a man in a tree with a thirty-foot pole and a large bird being poked at the end of it. Why did this random event catch such attention? To all present, it appeared to be a spellbinding event. I walk up to the first bystander and break the silence:

Me: “What’s going on?”
Guy, matter-of-factly: “A bird.”
Me, no more enlightened. The bird was a clear and obvious fact: “Yes, but what is he trying to do with the bird?”
Guy, a shrug and silence. Eyes never stray from the scene above.

I roll through several of these hushed, identical conversations before giving up on my quest for understanding, and patiently join the rest of the crowd in silent observation of the scene above. Finally, the eagle at the top of the tree flies off after being poked one time too many. Poking Guy descends from the tree. Everyone starts the engines and drive off without another word. I walk up to the man and ask the obvious:

Me: “What are you doing?”
Guy, in a tone suggesting I am short a few IQ: “Catching a bird.”
I refrain from the obvious question, “How do you catch a large bird of prey with a thin wooden stick?” Instead, in a quick study of local custom, I simply shrug.

Clearly quite pleased, the man smiles and drives off in hot pursuit of the winged, and to my eye quite vanished, bird. We shake our heads and laugh at the bizarre and unique cultural experience. These interactions are part of what I love about traveling: Things so different to us are just part of everyday activity, no questions asked, to the people around us.

Malé is the jumping off point for all foreign tourists heading to the islands as it has the only international airport in the Maldives (a second is under construction in the Addoo Atoll which will open up the southern atolls to tourism and development). Currently, most of the tourism centers around the atolls that surround Malé. The closer we got to Malé, the more we were confined. In fact, I’m sure that I am close to the mark when I say every speck of surfaced land within 50 miles of Malé supports an exclusive, high-end resort… a fact that burdened us given the inhospitality of staff to non-guests. We wanted to go ashore, explore, play on the beach, stretch our legs but the majority of resorts denied ad hoc guests. On the few attempts made, we were stopped by hotel security and escorted to reception where we were told in curt refrain, “Of course you can use the facilities, for the day, for the cost of renting a room.” At USD150 per person we thought a free swim in the ocean beat an expensive dip in the pool.

Nilandhe Atoll: We are anchored off a resort, though we cannot get near. We were about-faced by security on approach to the jetty and not-so-courteously asked to leave. I would mind, but not twenty minutes after returning to Atea we sight twin tips break the surface of the water around us. Manta. In a breath we are side-to-side with these graceful giants. A hundred red-and-white striped tourists ashore and not a single one out in the water. What they paid so dearly to get sight of we were close to for free; take that, Mr. Security Man, we don’t need your stinkin’ resort anyway! The mantas casually glide around us, unbothered by our invasion of their space. For two days, we jump in at random to swim by their side and watch them, mantles curled and pointed, uncurl. Braca is at my side as one sweeps past us in a silent arc, his brown eye looking into our blue, curious. Finally, on the third day, they leave. Having shared the anchorage together, their departure signals our own time to leave; we’ve gotten the best that the resort had to offer without ever stepping foot on the beach.

Resorts

Regardless of continuous rebuff, we wormed our way into the grace of a few sympathetic managers and invariably spent the equivalent rate. Rather than paying the no-room room charge, we paid our dues in meals and cocktails, salons and shops – the cocktails being an extravagant treat as there is no alcohol sold anywhere outside the resorts throughout the country. A loophole exists for resorts catering to international guests and we made the most of it: Mai tai’s poolside, red wine at dinner, sparkling with the setting sun. We tip our glasses and share the facilities with Chinese, Germans, English and Russians, the bulk of foreign visitors to the Maldives, and a scattering of other nationalities for the day. Couples steeped in love hold hands and wander down the soft sand beach or lounge on sundecks overhang the reef. It would appear that Cupid had taken residence, flinging haphazard arrows at all the guests but apparently not. The Maldives is ranked at the world’s most desired honeymoon destination and by the proliferation of luxury resorts it is no wonder.

Baa Atoll: Okay, I’m getting the hang of this: Dinghy ashore, a hand on the scruff of the neck and a complimentary ride to reception, get told to take a room or beat it, receive a second complimentary ride on the golf cart, and back to the boat. Regardless, I’m dogged. I still have hope. I persuade John to join me in my fruitless pursuit of five-star luxury. We are herded to reception and recited what we now can quote verbatim. Before the golf cart pulls up for our return trip to the dingy, I grab the kids and wander off to watch the shark feeding. The only shark I run into, however, is the manager rocking her baby at the end of the jetty. I coo, ask to cradle. Pretty soon we have a fake guest room, an open tab, and all amenities at our disposal. We spend the next few days livin’ large resort-style, hand-in-hand (when not hand-on-cocktail) and Cupid-struck. Ahh… the pleasure of success!

Oddly enough, a UN mission in the 1960s deemed the Maldives unsuitable for tourism, a misguided analysis as tourism boomed after the first mission in 1972. Over the next twenty-eight years multinationals had exclusive rights on tourist development and resorts sprang up all over the central atolls, gradually extending outward. The regulation prohibited the local population from drawing on the countries biggest economic asset, with the majority of revenue only minimally going to the local economy. Each resort consisted of an exclusive hotel on its own island with a population based entirely on tourists and staff. For the majority, they were managed by foreign multinationals with all services offered within the island and no contact with the local community. Foreigners were not allowed to visit any of the inhabited islands with tourists restricted to the resorts and cruisers banned from anchoring off any populated islands. There was no interaction between local Maldivian and tourist. The authorities did not welcome independent travelers, which included yachts, and as a result very few boats visited the region.

Within the past eight years the government has eased restrictions and the small towns sprinkled throughout the archipelago now cater to international clientele. This is the result of a change in regulation in 2009 that legalized the development of tourism on a local level, allowing tourists to stay among the local population rather than solely on privately owned resort islands. Tourism had become the number one economy in the Maldives and locals were finally able to profit from the industry. Guesthouses, cafes, dive shops and souvenir shops burgeoned throughout the local villages and more than a million tourists currently visit the country each year. Still, particularly in the south where tourism has been slower to develop, a foreigner can still seen as an anomaly:

Foammulah Atoll: We are in the southern atolls and we’ve not seen a single foreigner since our arrival in the Maldives two weeks prior. We’ve passed a few scattered resorts so clearly they come, but rarely stray from dive boat or resort. We’ve been at anchor for four days now, our arrival mere hours before a big storm, gusts up to 55 knots and rain tossed at us like needles. The village, blinded from view through the storm, finally emerges. We finally leave the boat for a much-needed stretch of the legs and play on the tiny islet we are anchored off of. On the main island, I see four bodies marching in line out to sea. Arm-in-arm, they head our way. The water is deep in places, the current strong. Each supporting each other and dragging one another along, progress is slow. As they near I make out four women in full dress. I wade out as they finally reach us to greet them, smiling as they puff from the exertion. They’ve crossed four islets to reach us.

There is no conclusion to this story, for it is not yet concluded. We are en route to India but will be returning to the Maldives mid-January for another shot at the trifecta. After all, of one thousand one hundred and ninety islets, we’ve still a few yet left to get through… so, I’ll leave this on pause, to continue early next year. In the meantime, our sleepy little lives are about to get a serious shot of south Indian adrenaline.

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