On its official website, the Maldivian Tourism Board calls itself, "The sunny side of life". And there's no doubting that. With its majestic blue waters, white sandy beaches and rich marine life, Maldives has earned a reputation as one of the most exotic travel destinations on Earth. What the tagline missed though, was an asterisk at the end and a disclaimer at the bottom that reads, "*January – August".
At least that's how we felt upon touching down at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport on a drizzly November evening. We were wary of going to the Maldives, or any island for that matter around this time of the year. Back home, the end of the year usually means unstoppable bouts of torrential rain leaving piles upon piles of laundry left to slowly dry under the ceiling fan.
But we were optimistic. I mean people usually are when they're in front of the computer shopping for flight tickets. The adrenalin gets the better of you and the way these airlines advertise their deals these days make even flying to the Arctic in winter attractive.
So to the Maldives we flew, extremely excited about being in pictures you'd only see in magazines, and slightly nervous of a disastrous rainy trip you'd only see in bad romantic comedies.
The Maldives is an island nation located in the Indian Ocean and consists of twenty-six atolls making up a total of 280 islands. An atoll, for your information, is a group of islands that encircle a shallow body of water i.e. lagoon. That's the simplest explanation I could muster from the variety of descriptions I've encountered from the locals. This complex configuration gives the country a unique topography unlike any other. Seen from space, Maldives looks like a map you'd be thankful you never had to draw in school.
On a ground level averaging at only 1.5m (about the size of two Ewoks), Maldives is the lowest country on the planet. And with global warming raising the sea level surrounding the islands, Maldives has been the subject of discussion among environmentalist over its potential inundation. Unlike an atoll, inundation is where a country is -- in simple scientific term -- totally submerged like way underwater.
While this might take decades, there is a possibility that the Maldives would someday turn into Atlantis. So you could imagine an explorer 100 years from now discovering Four Seasons Maldives deep down with its mini-bar containing beverages still costing more than the market price at the time.
Of the 280 islands, 200 are inhabited fishing villages and 80 are leased to luxury resorts -- each of them, on one island. And getting to these islands would require another flight on either a Maldivian (the local airline) aircraft or a seaplane run by two other companies. Different from an atoll and inundation, a seaplane is a fixed-wing aircraft that can take off and land on water. So if you're rich enough to book a resort on an island so small it couldn't fit an airstrip, these seaplanes will take you right across your private beach to the doorsteps of your water village suite where your butler awaits.
Not to mention that your neighbours will include the likes of famous Hollywood stars, sports celebrities, socialites, corrupt politicians, and not us.
Finding a place to stay in the Maldives if you're on a shoestring budget like us is like finding an honest taxi driver in KL. It's not easy. Accommodations on the islands are only divided into two groups: 1) exclusive 6-star boutique designer water villas and 2) stopover backpacker shacks for pothead divers. Since we're neither wealthy nor high, spotting Reveries Diving Village amidst the plethora of options online was a prayer answered.
Reveries is located on Gan Island, in Laamu Atoll; about a 55-minute flight from the capital. Nestled in the middle of a fishing village, Reveries opened its doors to guests in February of this year. We've always believed that you can't really go wrong with a new place. And looking at how well-designed their website was, we reckoned that they'd care just as much about their guests.
That's how we've been choosing hotels anyway... nice websites.
We were greeted at Kadhdhoo Airport by Monni, the son of Reveries' owner, Majeed. Having spent some time studying in Malaysia and the UK, Monni spoke perfect English as he drove us along the bumpy road leading to our destination at the end of the four islands within the atoll. Being the nice guy that he is, Monni patiently answered the many questions we had including my inquiry about the farm animals of the fishing village.
Simple brick houses spread out from one another make up the setup of the community. There's not much structure apart from wide streets built adjacent to each other. Most of the houses were built by the locals and handed down to their sons and daughters. Married couples are provided with land by the government for them to build houses on. In contrast to our Malaysian practice, this scheme is not called the 1Maldives Housing Program.
Awaiting our arrival at the lobby was a row of staff standing proud in their beige uniform and ready at our service. After sampling the complimentary coconut drink and hot face towel, we were led to our room on the first floor overlooking the ocean. On the bed were rose petals arranged so beautifully we had trouble turning the blanket over.
The calm breeze of the ocean blowing through the coconut trees was a relaxing sight like no other. Ripples of water reverberate from the heart of the sea enveloping the carpet of crystalline sand beneath our feet. KL and its noise felt so far away. And we never felt more at ease. So much that I doze into slumber leaving Azalia awake from my snoring.
We were pleasantly surprised to soon learn that we were the only guests at the hotel. Well it was a Monday and traffic into Maldives isn't as heavy as any other island say, Singapore.
According to our new friend Kunalan, the head chef, who is also apparently a Malaysian, they had just hosted a visit from Greenpeace who docked their Rainbow Warrior boat by the shore and conducted a talk about responsible fishing to the villagers. Just about one of the things that Reveries aims to do; providing lodging for 'travelers', instead of mere 'tourists'. A stance we don't mind being associated to though we were mainly there to save our wallets.
But that has been the situation at the luxury resorts where visitors to the islands are secluded as far as possible from the locals; only to be surrounded by hotel staff made up of primarily foreign workers. So you don't really get to experience the Maldives to the fullest. True you get the blue waters and the whole lot but isn't traveling about meeting new people beyond the resort compound?
Adjacent to Reveries is Laamu Dive & Surf. The place is run New Zealander – French couple Harvey and Judith, who have dived practically everywhere around the world. More the underwater enthusiast than I am, Azalia has been eager to swim in the Indian Ocean even before we boarded the plane in KL. So she was clearly the excited one asking Harv and Judi about the marine life there while I ask about the water depth.
To be fair, you do have to swim 150 – 200m before you reach the first house reef where the fishes and corals are. Anything before that is just sand and crabs walking like they need to use the toilet badly. After the first reef is a 3m dip for another 10m until you reach the second reef and a 5m dip. While this might sound like a walk in the park for most seasoned divers or a 4-year-old local kid, it was a Fear Factor challenge for me.
This was in the monsoon season and the water was quite rough, forcing us to retreat half-way at the first attempt. The frustrating bit is that before the first reef, the water level is no more than our shoulder. So it does make you feel rather insufficient.
As the tide subsided toward the afternoon, we had an easier time getting to the reef and managed to finally dip into the world beneath and explore the wonders of Maldives. It was a priceless once-in-a-lifetime experience we never thought of ever having. So much that Azalia went for a few more runs into the water the next day as I only could take a stroll by the beach, nursing my aching back and feeling old.
We left Maldives after our 3-night stay feeling envious of the locals who've spent all their lives spoiled with the beautiful sight of the Indian Ocean. Leading a simple lifestyle, devoid of the complexities of the city.
As I gazed upon the view from our aircraft on the flight back to Male, a moment of reflection struck me as I looked back at the paths that we have in life. The village that we were in reminded me a lot of my father's hometown of Kampung Laut in Kelantan. Locals taking a bath or doing the dishes by the sea. Children roaming freely into the jungles and ocean deep, journeying into the world and unraveling its mysteries. Far from being encapsulated in our generation of the iPad and what-have-yous.
There's a lot that we can learn from the people of these islands. That life is more than walking past each other with our eyes glued to our smartphones. And technology shouldn't dictate the way we enjoy our time here on Earth.
These are the lessons I hope to teach my own kids someday when we show them our Maldives album on Instagram.
More photos by Azalia Suhaimi here.
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Busking Barefoot is the travel blog of Asrif Yusoff and Azalia Suhaimi.
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